The Working Actor EDITOR'S INTRO
This is the forty forth in a continuing feature at IndustryCentral profiling "The Working Actor". (See Archives below)
William Shakespeare said "There are no small parts--.". William Shatner may have said it too, but the longhair with the tights was first, or so the reports go. In this feature we will explore what it really means to be an actor working in Motion Pictures and Television.
Broad public acknowledgment may have eluded some who find their way to these pages, or perhaps they may have brushed against what is referred to as stardom by virtue of one or more remarkable performances. However for many, the rewards of plying their craft in a field which has allowed them to earn a living may exceed the burdens of public acclaim. Given the chance, some in this clan might prefer the longevity offered by anonymity over the potential for short lived fame.
These individuals, either by design or fate, have managed to sustain a career by crafting performances which rendered them a good casting choice. They are usually thought of as a face you recognize, but you just can't get the name past the tip of your tongue.
Most of these folks have spent countless hours on stage in theaters ranging from 20 seats to 2000, building characters from the works of Ibsen, to Eliot, to Williams, to yes even Shakespeare, and so many of the modern Playwrights. They have rounded their skills doing drama, comedy, & musicals. Their work is a serious venture.
These people have given us screen performances which quite often were the catalyst that brought an Oscar or Emmy to another and yet they continue to work as "Characters" or "Co-Stars" without the trophies and plaques adorning their mantle.
Len Lesser
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Len Lesser was born and raised in the East Bronx. His first brush with acting was at a local Community Center called "Juvenile House". He was 16 and didn't tell anyone he was taking a "Dramatics Class" because: "That was real sissy stuff in my tough neighborhood" he tells us.

He did two plays there. Ironically, in his first role he played "Lenny Small" in "Of Mice and Men" and then Clifford Odets' "Golden Boy". He did Papa Bonaparte - character roles even at 17. He also read Odets' play "Awake and Sing" which took place on the exact street on which he lived. He remarked that, "Seeing The Franklin Theater, Goldman's Restaurant and Beck Street in print really excited my imagination and acting opened up a whole new world of expression for me as I was quite shy and inarticulate, and the applause and attention was really heady".

Following college, Lesser's career was put on hold as he enlisted in the Army where his tour lasted 4 years including 18 months in the China/Burma/India Theater of Operations. Discharged as a Sergeant in 1946 and forty pounds lighter, he returned to his family's new home in Boston where he spent only a few days before heading off to New York with a buddy to "Try Show Business".

They enrolled in the American Theater Wing and started 'making the rounds' of the theatrical offices. "I quickly found out what was meant by the phrase - Starving Actor", he joked. However he eventually go a job at what he calls a "Supernumerary" (AKA Extra) in the New York City Center Opera Company. It paid $2.00 a performance and he was happy to get it. The third season he was put in charge of all the other extras and was given the title "Super Chief" which included a raise to $10.00 per performance. "I took all the good acting and mime roles for myself" he confided.

Lesser's favorite story from those days goes as follows: "In 'Aida', during the triumphal march (The coronation), all the extras were dressed as Egyptian Soldiers. We wore skirts, sandals, helmets, spears, long black wigs and brown body makeup. We were to walk up a long staircase at the rear of the stage, slowly cross above the audience who sat far below and then rush around to the staircase and begin the process again. By doing so 5 or six times, 20 extras would appear as 300."

After the first time around, the stage manager came rushing up screaming.... "What the hell are you doing?, What the Hell are you doing???" He pointed up to the soldiers crossing above and I turned ashen as most of my troops were not wearing any underwear and everything was in full view of the audience. The audience went absolutely berserk, laughing and screaming (this was 1949). One lady was lying in the aisle, yes lying and yelling" Oh, Oh!" It was in all the N.Y. papers the next day and I was blamed for it, but no one told me to tell my soldiers to wear brown G.I. underwear!

In 1948 Lesser auditioned for CBS who started using him for small parts in their live TV shows such as "Studio One", "Suspense", "You Are There", and "Playhouse 90". This was before the TV Union was created and they were paid something like $15.00 a show.

He spent a good deal of time over the next 8 years doing summer stock for just room and board. "We did a new play each week, performing 6 nights a week and rehearsed the next show during the day", but he was playing major roles. "Hard to believe", he said, "but when you're young, you can do anything".

Following his marriage in 1954 to Jan Burrell, the young couple set out for Northern California to meet her parents. While there, Lesser was convinced by a friend to pop down to L.A. and take a look around. They fell in love with the place, and soon relocated there. Two jobs soon followed; "Shack Out on 101", and a TV show called "General Electric Theater" which was hosted by a guy named Ronald Reagan. "I made more money in one day then I made in 3 months in NYC...... It seemed like Shangri La!"

During his vast career Lesser has accumulated hundreds of stories. One of his favorites comes from the filming of "Papillon" in 1973. "We were working on the Island of Jamaica. I was a playing a guard on a prison ship. We had just docked at Devil's Island and the convicts were disembarking. The Director, Franklin Shaffner, yelled up to me, "When Steve (McQueen) goes by, give him a shove". McQueen turned to me and said, "Give me a good shove". So, on the next take, I did. Or at least I thought so. Following the take, McQueen turned to me and said, "Look, don't think of me as a movie star, think of me as a character in a show". He meant well but I couldn't believe I was hearing that. After McQueen left, Dustin Hoffman who had been standing there, took a pause and said, deadpan, "Think of me as a Movie Star"........ I about fell off the ship laughing!"

Lesser has appeared in dozens of feature films including "Kelly's Heroes", The Outlaw Josey Wales", "Death Hunt", "Main Event", and "Birdman of Alcatraz". He has completed over 400 television shows and currently has a recurring role as Garvin on the hit show "Everybody Loves Raymond". He has also continued his work on stage including over 100 appearances including plays at The Mark Taper Forum and The Ahmanson Theater. However, Len considers his run (1990-1998) on "Seinfeld" as Uncle Leo, for which he received a plaque honoring his work from A.T.A.S., to be "The best thing that happened to me in show business", and the best and most important things in his private life are his two children and his grandchildren.

Representation:
Agency:
Defining Artists
Tel: (818) 506-8188
Fax: (818) 506-8588

Len Lesser's advice to the aspiring actor:

"By all means give the business a try. If it is meant for you, and you for it, you'll stay with it through thick and thin. (and there's much of both) If its not meant for you, you'll know that too and you will probably find your dream someplace else"


Len Lesser's Credits (partial)
FILM
  • THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES
  • Clint Eastwood - Dir.
  • TAKE THIS JOB & SHOVE IT
  • Gus Trikonis - Dir.
  • DEATH HUNT
  • Peter Hunt - Dir.
  • MAIN EVENT
  • Howard Zieff - Dir.
  • PAPILLON
  • Frankiin Shaffner - Dir.
  • SLITHER
  • Howard Zieff - Dir.
  • KELLY'S HEROES
  • Brian Hutton - Dir.
  • BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ
  • John Frankenheimer - Dir.
  • BELLS ARE RINGING
  • Vincente Minnelli - Dir.
  • I WANT TO LIVE
  • Robert Wise - Dir.
  • SOME CAME RUNNING
  • Vincente Minnelli - Dir.
  • LUST FOR LIFE
  • Vincente Minnelli - Dir.
  • BROTHERS KARAMAZOV
  • Richard Brooks - Dir.
  • SLAUGHTER ON TENTH AVENUE
  • Arnold Laven - Dir.

    TELEVISION
    -- LONGFORM TELEVISION --  
  • SEINFELD
  • Tom Cherones, Andy Ackerman - Dirs.
  • McCOY (Pilot/MOW)
  • Dean Hargrove - Dir.
  • SIMON & SIMON (Pilot)
  • Corey Alien - Dir.
  • SPIDERMAN (Pilot)
  • E.W. Swackhamer - Dir.
  • MARTY (Pilot)
  • E.W. Swackhamer - Dir.
  • TUT & TUTTLE (MOW)
  • Ron Howard - Dir.
  • HIGH RISE (MOW)
  • John Carpenter - Dir.
    -- SERIES TELEVISION --  
  • EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND
  • Various
  • MAD ABOUT YOU
  • Various
  • CAROLINE IN THE CITY
  • Various
  • BOY MEETS WORLD
  • Various
  • TRACEY TAKES ON
  • Various
  • LIFE WITH ROGER
  • Various
  • SMART GUY
  • Various
  • JOHN LARROQUETTE SHOW
  • Various
  • PLATYPUS MAN
  • Various
  • THE YOUNG & THE RESTLESS
  • Various
  • REUNITED
  • Various
  • AMAZING STORIES
  • Various

    THEATER

  • CAPT. BRASSBOUND'S CONVERSION / Ahmanson Theatre / Joseph Anthony
  • THE MOTHS / Mark Taper Forum / Ed Parone
  • THE BIRTHDAY PARTY / ACT, Seattle / Greg Falls
  • HADRIAN VII / Alley Theatre, Houston / Nina Vance
  • THE LEGACY / Old Globe Theater, San Diego
  • MY FATHER'S HOUSE / 7 Angels Playhouse, Waterbury, CT

    For more info and credits see IMDb

    -- End ---

  • WORKING ACTOR ARCHIVE
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    January 2001

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    November 2000

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    October 2000

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    September 2000

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    August 2000

    Richard Riehle
    July 2000

    Charlie Brill
    June 2000

    Edie McClurg
    May 2000

    Miguel Sandoval
    April 2000

    Tom Bower
    March 2000

    Amy Aquino
    February 2000
    Danny Chambers [January 2000]
    Danny Chambers
    January 2000

    Eve Gordon
    December 1999
    Barbara Niven [November 1999]
    Barbara Niven
    November 1999
    Bill Lucking [October 1999]
    Bill Lucking
    October 1999
    Richard Roundtree [September 1999]
    Richard Roundtree
    September 1999
    Pat Harrington [August 1999]
    Pat Harrington
    August 1999
    Robert Donner [July 1999]
    Robert Donner
    July 1999
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