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Ron Leibman, the dependable actor known for his Tony Award-winning performance in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and for his turns in such films as Where’s Poppa?, Slaughterhouse-Five and Norma Rae, died Friday of pneumonia in New York City, two family reps told The Hollywood Reporter. He was 82.
Survivors include his wife, Emmy-winning actress Jessica Walter, whom he married in 1983. (They met at a party hosted by actress Brenda Vaccaro, and he joined her in the cast of Archer in 2013.) From 1969 to 1981, he was married to actress Linda Lavin.
Leibman, a native New Yorker who also played Rachel’s (Jennifer Aniston) nasty, no-nonsense father on Friends, received an Emmy Award in 1979 for portraying a former car thief turned criminal attorney on the CBS series Kaz. Despite critical acclaim, the sophisticated drama, which he co-created, was canceled after only 23 episodes.
As Leibman explained it in a 2011 interview for The A.V. Club: “I didn’t know much about television then, because I was a theater actor who had been snatched up and taken out there. And suddenly I was on this television show, which I’d helped write. It was my idea, basically, a guy who had been in prison and then gets out and joins a law firm. A man haunted by his past. A sort of Les Misérables theme.
“I had no idea if it was going to be successful, but when it went on the air and I saw the commercials, they were for trucks. And I said, ‘Wait a minute, the audience watching this show ain’t buying trucks.’ I’m sitting at my desk now, and there’s an Emmy Award right in front of me that I got from that. I got an Emmy, and the show was canceled two weeks later. (Laughs.) What a business, huh?”
Leibman won his Tony in 1993 for playing a fictional version of Roy Cohn, Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s infamous chief counsel, in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play imagines the final days of the attorney, who died of AIDS in 1986.
“Mr. Leibman, red-faced and cackling, is a demon of Shakespearean grandeur, an alternately hilarious and terrifying mixture of chutzpah and megalomania, misguided brilliance and relentless cunning,” Frank Rich wrote in his New York Times review. “He turns the mere act of punching telephone buttons into a grotesque manipulation of the levers of power, and he barks out the most outrageous pronouncements (‘I brought out something tender in him,’ he says of Joe McCarthy) with a shamelessness worthy of history’s most indelible monsters.”
Leibman made his big-screen debut in Where’s Poppa? (1970), Carl Reiner’s dark comedy about an aging mother (Ruth Gordon) driving her attorney son Gordon (George Segal) batty as he tries to honor his father’s dying wish not to put mom in a home.
As Gordon’s hapless younger brother, Sidney, Leibman can’t stay out of trouble. Rushing to the aid of his mother, Sidney takes a shortcut through Central Park and runs afoul of a street gang. They instruct him to run, and each time they catch him, they’re going to take an article of his clothing. “You remember Cornel Wilde? You remember The Naked Prey? Well, you better start prayin’, ’cause you gonna be naked,” the gang leader (Joe Keyes Jr.) tells Sidney.
By the time Sidney reaches the other end of the park, the only thing he’s wearing is his glasses. After it happens again, Sidney goes home wearing a gorilla suit Gordon had bought in the hopes of scaring his mother to death. The gang sees him and forces Sidney, still dressed as a gorilla, to accost a woman. His victim turns out to be an undercover cop.
“There’s a funny supporting performance by Ron Leibman as Segal’s brother. He keeps dashing across Central Park to save his mother after Segal makes threats over the phone,” Roger Ebert wrote. “And he keeps getting mugged. Never mind how he got into that gorilla suit. Never mind about anything in the movie, really. Reiner goes for laughs with such a fanatic dedication that there’s no time for logic, plot, character. And why should there be?”
Leibman also was quite funny as the mustachioed Captain Esteban, who fumbles in his attempt to capture the hero (George Hamilton), in the campy Zorro, the Gay Blade (1981).
In Gordon Parks’ The Super Cops (1974), Leibman enjoyed one of his few leading movie roles as he and David Selby played real-life renegade New York City policemen.
He held his own alongside Robert Redford and Segal as crooks pulling off a gem heist in the comedy The Hot Rock (1972) and was powerful as a volatile prisoner of war in George Roy Hill’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1972). And he brought fire to New York union rep Reuben Warshowsky, inspiring Sally Field’s character to stand up for her rights in Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae (1979).
Yet despite a solid film résumé that also included Your Three Minutes Are Up (1973), Phar Lap (1983), Rhinestone (1984), Sidney Lumet’s Night Falls on Manhattan (1996), Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus (2002) and Garden State (2004), a breakthrough role always eluded Leibman.
“Everybody thought I’d have more of a film career,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 1993. “I don’t look for answers anymore. It’s pointless because there are no answers. I don’t know how I’m perceived in Hollywood. Or if I’m perceived in Hollywood.”
Ronald Leibman was born on Oct. 11, 1937, and raised in Manhattan, the son of Murray Leibman, a garment businessman, and Grace, a homemaker. At the age of 6, he spent several months in the hospital with polio; a bit later, his parents divorced.
In 1954, Leibman enrolled in Ohio Wesleyan University to study acting. While in college, he became a member of The Compass Players, an improv troupe that also served as the training ground for Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Ed Asner, Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller.
Leibman returned to New York in 1958, studied at the Actors Studio and appeared off-Broadway in Camino Real, Legend of Lovers and A View From the Bridge. He made his Broadway debut in 1963 in Dear Me, The Sky Is Falling and became romantically involved with Lavin when both starred in the two-hander Cop-Out in 1969.
Leibman also was honored with Drama Desk Awards in 1969 and 1970 for his performances in We Bombed in New Haven and Transfers; originated the role of Herb in Neil Simon’s I Ought to Be in Pictures in 1980 (he replaced Tony Curtis); and played Lenny Ganz in 1988’s Rumors, another Simon comedy (Walter was in that as well).
Leibman said his experience with Kaz soured him on television, but he kept returning to the small screen, turning up on such series as Murder, She Wrote; Law & Order; and Law & Order: SVU. He also appeared on three 2006 episodes of HBO’s The Sopranos as Tony’s (James Gandolfini) doctor. “Whoa, I’ve just found Jimmy Hoffa,” his character, Dr. Plepler, once cracked as he tended to Tony’s gunshot wound.
In his A.V. Club chat, Leibman admitted that he relished the opportunity to torment Ross (David Schwimmer), Rachel’s romantic interest, as Dr. Leonard Green on NBC’s Friends. He originally passed on the role.
“It sounded stupid to me, so I turned it down. And my daughter, then, who was of that age, said, ‘No, you have to do it, you have to do it! I love that show, and I want to meet those kids,'” Leibman said. “I said, ‘All right. I’ll do it. I’ll do it once, but that’s all I’m doing.’ So I did and had a very nice time, and they asked me back, and my daughter did get to meet those kids, so I was a big hero in the house. It’s amazing, the power of the tube. I’ve done all this body of work, and they say, ‘Oh, yes, Rachel’s father.’ I go, ‘Give me a break.'”
When the opportunity arose, Leibman and Walter tried to work together. In 1986, they starred in a Los Angeles Theatre Center production of the Molière comedy Tartuffe and appeared on a 1996 episode of Law & Order and in the 2002 film Dummy.
In season four of the FX animated comedy Archer, Leibman joined the cast as Ron Cadillac, the shady new husband of Malory Archer (Walter), the boozy mother of master spy Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin).
“There are no egos when it comes to our work. We don’t compete, we’re not trying to prove anything to each other,” Walter told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. “I think that’s why we got married: We’d both reached a point in our lives where we weren’t fighting.”
Survivors also include his stepdaughter Brooke Bowman, a TV programming executive.
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