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In 1995, an unknown actor stole the show from the most popular characters on TV.
When Seinfeld‘s “The Soup Nazi” episode aired, the militant chef played by Larry Thomas was an instant sensation. “No soup for you” became one of the show’s most famous lines, and Thomas would go on to earn an Emmy nomination after paying for the $100 application fee himself.
Before landing the role, Thomas was working as a bail bondsman in Los Angeles, struggling to get an acting career going.
“The only people who had seen my work were the four people who had sat in the audience of the plays I was doing,” Thomas tells The Hollywood Reporter.
He took an acting workshop where Jeffrey Tambor — then a regular on The Larry Sanders Show — occasionally substitute taught. One day after class, Tambor was complimentary of Thomas’ work in a workshop scene. His classmates convinced him to write Tambor a letter asking to be introduced to Larry Sanders‘ casting director, who turned out to be Marc Hirschfeld, who also worked on Seinfeld.
The morning in 1995 Thomas got the call saying he had a Seinfeld audition, he had unsuccessfully tried to book a one-line role on Power Rangers. His other most promising meeting of the week was with a second bail bonds company, which asked if he’d like to double dip and work for them behind his employer’s back. Getting an audition, much less a part, on the No. 1 comedy on TV did not seem like a possibility.
“I had a pair of green pants. I had this old army shirt from back the ‘70s when my friend’s older brothers were in Vietnam,” says Thomas. “My wife went, ‘Oh my god. I’ve got an idea.’ She went into her part of the closet and took at a beret. We both stood there staring at the mirror. I looked like Saddam Hussein, who was not a very popular guy in 1995. I’m going, ‘Do I have the guts to walk in there like that?’ “
Thomas wasn’t aware the Soup Nazi was inspired by a real-life chef, Ali Yeganeh, but knew the Seinfeld team wanted someone with a Middle Eastern accent. He popped in a Lawrence of Arabia VHS and studied Omar Sharif‘s dialogue.
At the audition, he read three scenes and felt good about it. The audition with Hirschfeld went well enough to get a callback to read for Seinfeld himself.
“I BLEW IT.”
Thomas showed up for a second audition, this time with Seinfeld, Larry David and the show’s producers. In the waiting room, he noticed one of his acting idols Richard Libertini was there to read, which made Thomas sure there was no way he could book the gig. But when he got into the room, something clicked.
“Jerry was laughing his head off. I would have thought he was just trying to mess with me, he was laughing so hard,” Thomas recalls.
After the audition, Seinfeld was complimentary, but asked if Thomas could make the Soup Nazi slightly nicer. Thomas thought that was the kiss of death for his chances.
“I called my wife and said, ‘I had Seinfeld going for a minute, but then I blew it because he wanted something different. But I tell you, it was the audition of my life.’ “
Thomas was wrong. Shortly after, his agent paged him to let him know he had not only gotten the part, but that he would need to report for work at 1 p.m.
“Jerry walked up to me and first thing says, ‘Hey, forget about the direction I gave you. Just do what you did when you came in. For some reason, the meaner, the funnier,’ ” recalls Thomas. “That’s Jerry. One of the most powerful men in the industry tells some nobody actor that ‘your idea was better than mine.’ When something is funny to him, his ego is not involved.”
Director Andy Ackerman has said it felt like something was off during the shoot and that he and David worried they “had a little bit turkey on our hands,” but that was an unfounded worry. “it proved to be totally the opposite.”
One of the subtle keys to the episode’s success was a character many people assume was the Soup Nazi’s wife. She was a late addition, an an extra brought in because the soup counter was too long and an extra person was needed to make the scene work.
“The time it took me to step all the way over the register was changing the timing in the dialogue. It was either Andy or Larry who said, ‘We need somebody at the register to take the money and do that,'” says Thomas. “Her name was Marcea. She was from Brazil, and she had amazing timing. That’s not an accident, when she pulled the bag away from George. She had Danny Kaye timing.
The team continued to perfect the episode even after the audience left. David asked Thomas to stay after the curtain call to tweak parts that would later become classics. David added an additional element to the scene in which Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) impersonates Al Pacino, extending the Soup Nazi’s dialogue (see the video below).
“Larry said, ‘I want you to go ‘very good, very good.’ You know what? No soup for you'” recalls Thomas.
Another change came when the Soup Nazi berated a man who spoke Spanish.
“Originally I said, ‘unacceptable,’ and Larry wanted me to say ‘adios muchacho,’ ” says Thomas. “Larry played the part because the actor had gone home. So it was my one acting moment with Larry David, who played the Spanish guy in the retake. He wasn’t on camera though.”
Thomas felt good. He’d made Louis-Dreyfus laugh so hard she fell over the first time he yelled “no soup for you!” He’d received a standing ovation from the crowd.
“I deposited my costume, walked out the door and little did I know the life I had when I showed up that evening was completely gone forever. I would from then on be Larry Thomas the Soup Nazi.”
“YOU SHOULD BE NOMINATED FOR SOME KIND OF AWARD FOR THAT!”
The episode aired Nov. 2, 1995 to 33.1 million viewers. The episode was an instant classic.
Thomas went on with his life, continuing to work as a bail bondsman. One day he was doing some research for a case, looking through court archives in downtown Los Angeles. He knew everyone there, as he’d been a fixture since becoming a bondsman in 1986. One of the employees remarked that he looked “just like that guy on Seinfeld.”
He told her was that guy from Seinfeld.
“She goes, ‘Wow, you should be nominated for some kind of an award for that!’ ” says Thomas.
He wasn’t sure if there was a guest actor category, but gave the Television Academy a call and was informed he would be eligible if he filled out a form and paid the $100 entry fee. Normally a TV show submits its talent, but Thomas took on the task himself.
On the morning Emmy nominations were announced, Thomas watched, only to discover the guest actor category wasn’t announced on air. He called the TV Academy and asked them to read the category to him over the phone.
“Just like out of a screenplay, she read the list and my name was last,” Thomas says.
What followed was a Soup Nazi media storm, with Thomas interviewed on Inside Edition and Entertainment Tonight. He got a limo to the Emmys, where Tim Conway ultimately took the award for Coach.
“The big thing I remember distinctly about that period was I refused to say ‘No soup for you’ for anybody because I thought I’d sound like a bad watercooler impression of something I did in a specific moment,” says Thomas.
When he returned for the series finale in 1998, David and Seinfeld wanted him to say the line to Poppie (Reni Santoni).
“They didn’t ‘realize what an anathema would be for me at that moment. First take, ‘No soup for you!’ That was it. Out and done, moving on. I was walking away and Larry David says, ‘You know, you say it the exact same way that you said three years ago?’ So from now on I say it 20 times a day.”
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