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Len Lesser, perhaps best known as Uncle Leo on Seinfeld but a veteran actor with more than 500 appearances on film, television and the stage during his six-decade career, died Wednesday in Burbank, Calif., of pneumonia related to cancer. He was 88.
Lesser’s first love was the stage, and he appeared to critical acclaim in the past few years at Los Angeles’ A Noise Within, one of the nation’s leading classical repertory theater companies, most recently in Clifford Odets‘ Awake and Sing! this spring.
“Lesser nearly steals the show several times,” wrote Hoyt Hilsman of Backstage.
Other stage roles included The Moths at the Mark Taper Forum; Captain Brassbound’s Conversion at the Ahmanson; The Legacy at the Old Globe Theatre; and The Birthday Party at ACT. He studied at the American Theatre Wing and with Uta Hagen, Lee Strasberg and Milton Katselas.
The New York native and City College graduate also had more than 50 feature films to his credit, among them Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Kelly’s Heroes (1970), Papillon (1973), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Death Hunt (1981).
A veteran of television since its earliest days, he appeared on hundreds of shows since 1955, including such classics as Get Smart, That Girl, The Munsters, The Monkees, The Rockford Files, Bonanza, Ironside, Kojak, thirtysomething, Caroline in the City, ER, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Quincy, Mad About You, All in the Family, Boy Meets World and Everybody Loves Raymond (in which he had a recurring role as Garvin).
Lesser appeared in 15 episodes as Jerry’s Uncle Leo on NBC’s Seinfeld. His character has the word “Jerry” tattooed on the fingers of his right hand and “Hello” on the fingers of his left one, spelling out his catch phrase.
Survivors include his daughter, Michele Lesser; his son, David Lesser; David’s wife, Julie; and his grandchildren Jonathan, Kayla and Mayah.
“Heaven got a great comedian and actor today. The outpouring of sympathy we’ve already received has been amazing and is so greatly appreciated,” Michele said.
There will be a private funeral, with details of a public memorial service at A Noise Within to be announced. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to A Noise Within in Glendale, Calif.
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