Best known as Morty Seinfeld, the lumpy, loveable, penny-pinching father of Jerry Seinfeld on the pop culture touchstone "Seinfeld" (NBC, 1990-1998), character actor Barney Martin brought a unique mixture of clever comedy and Everyman earnestness to his roles on stage, screen and television for over four decades.
Born March 3, 1923, in the New York City borough of Queens, Martin served as a navigator in the Air Force during World War II, flying some 40-plus missions. After his discharge, he followed his father to the force, enjoying a 20-year career as a New York City police detective and demonstarting a talent for making deputy police commissioners laugh during presentations. His knack for joke-telling earned him a spot writing speeches for various officials, and a second career was born. In the 1950s, he began writing on the side for comedy shows such as "Name That Tune" and "The Steve Allen Show," where he met Mel Brooks, who coaxed Martin into performing. By the end of the '50s, his robust frame got him a job as a stand-in for Gleason.
He appeared in the original "Candid Camera" and landed a small part as a juror in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Wrong Man" (1956). After an appearance in the film "Charly" (1968), Brooks cast Martin in "The Producers" (1968). That role launched Martin into Broadway theater, where he appeared in several musicals, including "South Pacific," "The Fantasticks," All American" and "How Now Dow Jones." He created the role of Roxy's unappreciated husband, Amos Hart, in the celebrated "Mr. Cellophane" sequence in the original Bob Fosse production of the renowned musical "Chicago" in 1975. He subsidized his theater work with TV guest stints on such series as "The Odd Couple," "Happy Days" and "Barney Miller."
In 1981, Martin received his most popular screen role, playing Liza Minnelli's matter-of-fact father Ralph Marolla in "Arthur," opposite comic Dudley Moore. The actor also appeared in several television series in the the '80s and early '90s, primarily in sitcoms including "The Tony Randall Show" (where he was a regular), "Major Dad," "Full House," "The Golden Girls," "The Wonder Years," "Murphy Brown" (as the father of reporter Frank Fontana), "Diff'rent Strokes" and "Night Court." He also took dramatic roles on "21 Jump Street," "Murder She Wrote," "Hill Street Blues," "St. Elsewhere" and "Sisters." The actor was also cast in regular roles in several series that failed to catch on, including "Number 96" (NBC, 1980-1981), "Zorro and Son" (CBS, 1983) in a dual role as brothers Napa and Sonoma, the Valerie Bertinelli sit-com "Sydney" (CBS, 1990) and the Don Rickles sit-com "Daddy Dearest" (Fox, 1993). He also had a recurring role on the ABC family dramedy "Life Goes On" in 1991 and 1992.
When he landed his career-defining stint on "Seinfeld," Martin was the third actor to play the part of Seinfeld's father and became the one most identified with the role of the Florida retiree, appearing in 23 episodes between 1991 and 1998. Among the more notable episodes involving his character was one in which Morty and his wife, Helen, played by Liz Sheridan, were the stars of their Florida condo association's annual show. There was also the episode in which Morty invents the "Executive," a beltless trench coat that Kramer wanted to sell. Martin, long skilled in comedy, immensively enjoyed his late-career run on the popular series, saying in 1998: "Playing Jerry's dad was like having whipped cream on top of a mountain of ice cream." Post-"Seinfeld," the actor remained largely retired prior to his death in 2005.