Richard Herd, Mr. Wilhelm on 'Seinfeld,' Dies at 87

Richard Herd - Photofest - H 2020
Courtesy of Photofest

He also appeared on 'T.J. Hooker' and three 'Star Trek' shows and on the big screen in 'All the President's Men' and 'The China Syndrome.'

Richard Herd, the venerable character actor who played Mr. Wilhelm on Seinfeld and appeared in such notable films as All the President's Men and The China Syndrome, died Tuesday. He was 87.

Herd died of cancer-related causes at his home in Los Angeles, his wife of 40 years, actress Patricia Crowder Herd, told The Hollywood Reporter.

With his commanding features, Herd often portrayed men of authority during his five-decade career, and in his first recurring role in a TV series, he played Captain Sheridan, William Shatner's boss, on the ABC action cop drama T.J. Hooker

The Boston native also made a name for himself in the world of science fiction by portraying Supreme Commander John in the 1983 NBC miniseries and its sequel a year later; the Klingon L'Kor on Star Trek: The Next Generation; Admiral William Noyce on seaQuest 2032; and Admiral Owen Paris on Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Renegades.

Herd played the ex-CIA agent who led the team that broke into the Watergate Hotel in All the President's Men (1976), and when a shift supervisor (Jack Lemmon) takes control of a nuclear plant in The China Syndrome (1979), he was the plant's scheming chairman trying to cover up its problems. 

Herd also portrayed Gen. Omar Bradley in the lauded 1979 ABC miniseries Ike: The War Years and military men in Private Benjamin (1980) and Sgt. Bilko (1996). 

One of those journeymen actors known more by his face (some say he resembled Karl Malden) than by name, Herd appeared 11 times over three Seinfeld seasons as Wilhelm, the clueless New York Yankees exec who supervised George Costanza (Jason Alexander) after he landed a job with George Steinbrenner's team as an assistant to the traveling secretary.

In the 1996 episode "The Bottle Deposit," Wilhelm goes into great detail about a secret project he wants George to do, not realizing that George has missed most of what he was saying. The more George tries to uncover the details, the more cryptic they become. 

George is saved when Wilhelm goes off his meds, completes the project himself and gives George the credit.

In "The Checks" from 1996, George discovers that the company that cleans the Yankee Stadium office carpets is a front for a religious cult and gets upset when the group shows no interest in recruiting him. When the crew arrives for a cleaning, its newest recruit is Wilhelm, now calling himself "Tania" (the pseudonym Patty Hearst adopted during her kidnapping). Flabbergasted, George asks the crew head, "Him, you brainwashed? What's he got that I don't have?" 

"He was always doing things that never got done and always going over to Mr. Steinbrenner and apologizing to him," Herd said of Wilhelm in a 2016 interview. "Some days, he had clear days, other days he didn't. He was very vulnerable. He had an odd sense of humor. … He was way out there on occasion. I've taken a few trips out there, so I know all about it."

Wilhelm ultimately got the last laugh on George. In 1997's "The Millennium," George is offered a job as a scout with the New York Mets — but only if the Yankees fire him. Try as he might, he can't get this to happen — that is, until he ties the team's championship trophy to the bumper of his car and drags it around the stadium parking lot while shouting derogatory slurs about the ball club.

Steinbrenner (voiced by Larry David) is all set to fire George, but Wilhelm comes in and takes the fall, telling the owner that it was all his idea. The Boss fires Wilhelm instead, but he doesn't care. He has a new job … as a scout for the Mets.

Herd said he was surprised to be cast because of something he mentioned during his 1995 audition. "It was easy. It was fun. It was very inviting," he recalled. "And as I left, I turned around and said, 'Look, I have to tell you this. I hope it doesn't make a difference, but I'm a Red Sox fan.' And they all threw their scripts at me. The next day they said, 'Come on out and play with us.'"

Richard Thomas Herd Jr. was born on Sept. 26, 1932, in Boston. His father, a train engineer, died at an early age. His mother, Katherine, remarried, and the family relocated to Brockton, Massachusetts, where his stepfather worked in an auto shop. His mom instilled in him a love of music and the arts, he noted.

Herd survived a serious illness as a child and said the experience helped shape his career.

"I had osteomyelitis, a serious bone infection, and almost didn't survive," he told The Patriot Ledger in a 2015 interview. "I became ill in second grade and went to the Cotting School, as it's now known, in Lexington, for young people with various ailments. I was in and out of Boston Children's Hospital. Lying there, month after month, you become very stoic. It really stimulated my imagination, and I think actually helped me later as an actor."

Herd was saved when he became one of the first patients to receive the recently introduced drug penicillin.

He had a two-year apprenticeship at the Boston Summer Theatre and got the opportunity to learn from the legendary actor Claude Rains.

"One evening, he heard a group of us rehearsing Shakespeare and offered to come in early each night to work with us," Herd said. "He taught me you shouldn't just get involved with the language, but look ahead for the intent and direction of the character you are portraying."

After a brief stint in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, Herd headed to New York, studied acting and art and built a career on the stage. He made his film debut (as did Arnold Schwarzenegger) in the 1970 cult classic Hercules in New York.

When Richard Long died in 1974 before filming on Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men began, Herd took his place.

Herd later appeared on the big screen in F.I.S.T. (1979), The Onion Field (1979), Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997). 

Herd continued to act into his 80s, appearing in A Christmas in New York (2016), Get Out (2017) and The Silent Natural (2020) and on such series as Rizzoli & IslesShameless and Hawaii Five-O. He also was a member of the ensemble on the 2012 prank show Betty White's Off Their Rockers.

Herd was a painter and a founding member of The Enterprise Blues Band, made up of castmembers from various Star Trek series. The group released the albums Enterprise Blues and Intergalactic Roots Music in 2004 and '05.

Survivors also include his daughter Erica, son Rick and stepdaughter Alicia.