Len Lesser, a veteran character actor perhaps best known to modern audiences as Seinfeld’s Uncle Leo, has died of complications from pneumonia. He was 88.
Lesser’s long career in television began in 1949 with a role in Studio One In Hollywood. In the early days, he often found work playing thugs and hoodlums in shows like Dragnet and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and worked on Westerns such as Have Gun Will Travel and Gunsmoke. In fact, Lesser’s résumé reads like a compendium of classic television: He had appearances on Mike Hammer, The Jack Benny Program, Peter Gunn, Bat Masterson, The Untouchables, The Red Skelton Hour, The Outer Limits, The Wild Wild West, My Favorite Martian, That Girl, Get Smart, The Monkees, Green Acres, All In The Family, Bonanza, The Mod Squad, The Bob Newhart Show, Kojak, The Rockford Files, Simon And Simon, Hardcastle And McCormick, Remington Steele, Amazing Stories, Falcon Crest, Thirtysomething, Boy Meets World, Mad About You, Sabrina The Teenage Witch, Just Shoot Me, and ER.
In 1970, Lesser starred in the World War II action-comedy Kelly’s Heroes as Sergeant Bellamy, who’s drafted to build a bridge for Clint Eastwood’s band of bank-robbing soldiers by Donald Sutherland’s Oddball. Lesser also had film roles in The Outlaw Josey Wales and Papillon.
Lesser’s Uncle Leo was introduced in season two of Seinfeld (beginning with “The Pony Remark”), and turned up throughout the series, his friendliness often taking on a strange aggressiveness: Whenever he came across Jerry he would throw his arms wide and emphatically exclaim, “Jerry! Hello!” while he was also given to grabbing a person’s elbow and pulling them in close while he talked. Naturally, he was also easily slighted.
Those same excitable traits would play into Lesser’s other most famous recurring character, that of Garvin on Everybody Loves Raymond, who would frequently raise both arms in excitement whenever he saw Ray Romano.
Lesser’s last on-screen role was in 2009 on Castle.