Blessed with a craggy face, a New York accent and a talent for both drama and comedy, Len Lesser was a busy character actor who essayed numerous tough guys, thugs and oddballs in a richly varied career in film and on stage and television that lasted over five decades. He received his showbiz start during the era of 1950s live television before graduating to feature films like "The Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962). His onscreen versatility led to larger roles in 1970s classic features like "Kelly's Heroes" (1970) and "The Outlaw Josey Wales" (1976), but he was perhaps best remembered as Jerry Seinfeld's bizarre Uncle Leo on several seasons of "Seinfeld" (NBC, 1989-1998). Apart from a financial windfall earned through syndication, Lesser's role secured him wider exposure and more work as he entered his seventh and even eighth decades, and unquestionably raised the degree of respect afforded to a character actor of his pedigree.
Born Leonard King Lesser in New York City on Dec. 3, 1922, he was the shy child of East Bronx natives Charles and Rebecca Lesser, who as a teenager found his calling during dramatics class at a community center. Already a character actor before ever setting foot in front of a camera, Lesser played Lenny in "Of Mice and Men" and the immigrant father of boxing hopeful Joe Bonaparte in Clifford Odets' "Golden Boy" in various stage productions. After college, Lesser planned to pursue acting as a career, but World War II sent him into the U.S. Army, where he served for four years, including 18 months in the Pacific theater. Upon his discharge in 1946, Lesser briefly joined his family in Boston before heading to New York and a future in show business.
Like most novice actors, he spent much of his time in search of work to make ends meet. Lesser paid the bills for a while as an extra for the New York City Center Opera Company before a 1948 audition for CBS landed him bit parts on live television dramas. In 1954, he relocated to Los Angeles with his wife and almost immediately began finding work in its burgeoning television industry. He also made his feature film debut in the gritty budget noir "Shack Out on 101" (1955) with Lee Marvin. By the following year, Lesser was appearing regularly in films and on television. Though rarely credited, he could be counted on to essay streetwise types - reporters in "Somebody Up There Likes Me" (1956) and "I Want to Live!" (1958) - as well as lawmen of all stripes in such films as "The Brothers Karamazov" (1958) and "The Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962). A latent knack for silliness gained him entry into juvenile and teen projects for American International Pictures like "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini" (1965) and a pair of appearances as foils for "The Monkees" (NBC, 1966-68). Lesser also contributed three memorable turns as KAOS agent Luden on "Get Smart" (NBC/CBS, 1965-1970).
Lesser's ubiquity in the 1950s and 1960s paid off with more substantial roles in features during the early 1970s. He was the platoon sergeant who builds a bridge with the help of a military band in the Clint Eastwood comedy "Kelly's Heroes" (1970), a Devil's Island guard opposite Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in "Papillion" (1973), and a series of heavies in "Blood and Lace" (1971), "The Outlaw Josey Wales" (1976), and "Ruby" (1979). He continued to divide his time between film and television in the 1980s. There were small but memorable parts in "The Main Event" (1979), "Take this Job and Shove It" (1981) and the cult oddity "Du-beat-e-o" (1984) with rocker Joan Jett in the days before her solo music stardom.
In 1991, Lesser received the greatest attention in his television career to date for his turn as Uncle Leo, an eccentric and excitable relative of Jerry Seinfeld on the sitcom "Seinfeld." Leo's list of personality quirks was long and complex: from his catchphrase ("Jerry! Hello!"), his tendency to grab people by the arm and hold them hostage to his anti-Semitic paranoia, and a passion for shoplifting, he soon became a favorite recurring character on the program. The popularity of "Seinfeld" allowed Lesser to finally receive offers of work instead of auditioning for them. Among those roles were Garvin, the very Leo-esque friend of Peter Boyle's Frank Barone on "Everybody Loves Raymond" (CBS, 1996-2005) and the grotesque millionaire Nick Pappasmearos Jr. on the Howard Stern-produced "Son of the Beach" (FX, 2000-02). Lesser later reprised his role as Uncle Leo in the seventh season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (HBO, 2000- ), which centered on a fictitious "Seinfeld" reunion. The beloved actor passed away from cancer-related pneumonia in Burbank, CA on Feb. 16, 2011. He was 88 years old.