"In my early years, yes, that's about all I did," says Lesser over lunch. "With this punim, as we say -- with this face -- people looked at me and said, 'That's all you do, buddy,' particularly in television and films. In theater I always did anything and everything."
That long, narrow, glowering, sharp-nosed, bald-domed mug has landed him onscreen in dozens of films, often doing dirt in high-testosterone fare such as The Birdman of Alcatraz, Papillon, Kelly's Heroes and The Outlaw Josey Wales. "It's mostly men who know me," he observes. "From Outlaw Josey Wales, and action movies, all the heavies I played. Women didn't know me."
He hasn't shirked the small screen, either. He's been dutifully playing one variation or another on the Second Unpleasant Guy From the Left since the '50s on hundreds of TV episodes, ranging from The Munsters to Get Smart to Bonanza to My Favorite Martian to The Monkees to The Wild, Wild West to All in the Family to Kojak. It's also television that gave him the part for which he is best remembered -- the title character's obnoxious, touchy Uncle Leo on Seinfeld.
In honor of this juicy role, I've invited "Uncle Leo" to LEO the Delicatessen, the rather gentrified Jewish deli on Scottsdale Road. Lesser, who's in the Valley until mid-February appearing in Ensemble Theatre's production of 2 1/2 Jews (after previews last weekend, it officially opens this Friday), is good-natured about the gimmick. He seems to be good-natured about everything, actually; if there's an exception to the "bad guy onscreen/nice guy offscreen" rule, he isn't it.
"Chopped liver man, huh?" he asks, when I order some as an appetizer. "It should be made with chicken livers, you know. Oh, yeah, then it's delicious, rich. It's a different flavor than beef liver, calf's liver. But chicken livers are very expensive."
Chicken must be his favorite -- he orders chicken noodle soup and, though for some reason he says it "isn't the thing to do in a delicatessen," a chicken salad sandwich on rye with coleslaw. Then he regales me with tales of the rotter trade. Geeky character-actor buff that I am, I'm all ears.
He tells me, for instance, how he knew on the set of The Outlaw Josey Wales that Clint Eastwood would turn out to be a good director: "He said something to me that the average director wouldn't have phrased that way, and I knew right away this guy knew how to deal with actors. . . . He said, 'Do you think this guy might be afraid of me?' Instead of imposing it on you, it was making a suggestion that you might possibly want to use if you'd care to."
He also tells me about the remunerative side of the journeyman TV actor: "I had a residual check the day before I left for nine cents! So you can imagine how long ago that was. . . . I've had a number of them; 13 cents, 27 cents, one for $1.40"
He's a man who's known the value of $1.40. The Bronx native, now in his late 70s, first auditioned for a drama group as a kid of 17 or 18. "I didn't tell anybody," he says. "Nobody takes drama in the Bronx, you know, I mean, Jesus, that's a sissy thing." Early roles such as Lenny in Of Mice and Men and the father in Golden Boy hooked him, however -- he was a starving New York stage actor throughout the '40s, and by the mid-'50s his friend Lee Marvin had helped him land some movie work, and he was a not-quite-starving Hollywood actor for years thereafter. He loved every minute of it, especially the travel opportunities that movie work brought him. "I loved going on locations!" he gushes. "Seeing different places, that's an exciting part of this business. You take a trip, you get paid for it."
Busy though he'd been, Lesser hadn't reached real career stability until Uncle Leo came along. Thanks to Seinfeld, he says, "I have casting people, directors, call me, instead of going up there and reading, worrying, having your agent beg, all the junk you go through. Now it's like, 'Would you like to do it? Okay, here's the deal.' Which is a whole new ballgame. A nice ballgame to play, after many years toiling in the vineyards."
He was considered for the role of the father on Everybody Loves Raymond, and though the part eventually went to Peter Boyle instead, Lesser has a recurring role as one of the father's sour friends. Soon after he leaves 2 1/2 Jews, he's slated to perform in a radio version of Chekhov's The Seagull.
His Seinfeld fame has also enabled him to spend more time back in the live theater. Over the last five years, he's done plays in Connecticut, San Diego and Toronto, not to mention Phoenix. Though he confesses he's "not a desert man," he says he's enjoyed his time in the Valley. While here, he was introduced to another celebrity who specializes in seeming fearsome but is a well-known pussycat: "There's a rock star . . . dresses and plays like a woman. . . . His name is a woman's name . . ."
Does he mean Alice Cooper, by any chance? "Yes! Very nice, very nice guy! I was expecting a weirdo, but he was anything but!"
Lesser's notoriety even follows him to our booth at LEO. While we're putting away what we can of the pricey, hearty, overscaled sandwiches -- not to mention the chopped liver, which, whether from chicken or cow, is very tasty -- two managers from the place approach us. They give Lesser a cap that reads LEO, and ask if he'll pose for a picture. The manager isn't slow on the take -- "I would probably put it up," he says, "to show that Leo eats at LEO."
Lesser graciously complies, and after the managers leave, he also allows me to snap a couple of shots. When I sit back down, I apologize for the interruption. He shrugs.
"If they want to take this ugly punim, what the hell."