LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Actor Len Lesser, who starred on “Seinfeld” as Jerry’s eccentric, shoplifting Uncle Leo, died on Wednesday after a battle with cancer. He was 88.
A friend told Reuters that Lesser was admitted to a rehabilitation center near his home in the city of Burbank several weeks ago, and died peacefully after breakfast.
Although the television and movie veteran appeared in just 15 episodes of “Seinfeld,” his idiosyncratic character was a key ingredient in the offbeat tone of the groundbreaking 1990s sitcom.
His traits included a boisterous “Jerry! Hello!!” whenever he saw his comedian nephew, played by Jerry Seinfeld. His last name was never revealed, but everyone knew him as Uncle Leo.
In one episode, Uncle Leo accused a chef of being anti-Semitic because his hamburger was undercooked.
In another, Jerry noticed his uncle shoplifting at a book store, and was shocked to learn from him that all old people steal and they feign confusion if caught.
Lesser’s baldness and sharp visage were used to comic effect throughout the show. Jerry once labeled him an “Adonis,” who should be swinging. But he reversed course later in the same episode, declaring: “If there’s a woman that can take your presence for more than ten consecutive seconds, you should hang on to her like grim death. Which is not far off, by the way.”
Unlike many of the show’s characters, Uncle Leo was a largely innocent foil in grand schemes hatched by Jerry and his friends. Concerned about Jerry’s grandmother living on a fixed income, he tried to stop a public TV fundraiser mid-air after Jerry’s friend Kramer talked her into giving a large donation.
A doctor also chastised a bewildered Uncle Leo for looking angry after Jerry’s friend Elaine drew overly expressive fake eyebrows with a Sharpie when his real ones were burned off in an explosion.
New York-born Lesser’s career dated back to TV roles in the 1950s, and included roles opposite Steve McQueen in “Papillon,” and opposite Clint Eastwood in “Kelly’s Heroes” and “The Outlaw Josey Wales.”
In his later years Lesser had a recurring role on “Everybody Loves Raymond” as a crony of star Ray Romano’s father, played by Peter Boyle. His last appearance was as a neighbor in a 2009 episode of the TV show “Castle.”
Reporting by Dean Goodman; editing by Peter Bohan