The Eulogizer: ‘Uncle Leo’ of ‘Seinfeld,’ Czech author

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org. Read previous columns here.

Len Lesser, 88, ‘Uncle Leo’ from ‘Seinfeld’

Despite a vast acting resume, Len Lesser’s career as a character actor probably didn’t prepare him for his late-career fame as Jerry Seinfeld’s annoying but lovable Uncle Leo on the 1990s sitcom “Seinfeld.” Lesser died Feb. 16 at 88.

Lesser’s “hawklike profile and Noo Yawk accent” saw him through 15 episodes of “Seinfeld” and won him lasting fame that even carried over to Israel, The New York Times wrote. In an interview available online, Lesser described what happened on his first visit to the Western Wall: “I was standing there and I was quite taken with what was going on. People going up to the Wall and praying. Putting notes into the Wall. And I’m feeling very religious. (Eulogizer: Lesser says this with a self-deprecating smile and a shake of the head). Very quiet. And all of a sudden, I hear, ‘Uncle Leo, where is the watch?,’ which is from one of the shows. It’s like sacrilege at the Wall.”

Actor Jason Alexander, who portrayed George Costanza on “Seinfeld,” said in a post on Twitter: "He was a smart actor/comedian who knew exactly what he was doing in the creation of Uncle Leo. ‘Hellooo’ Uncle Leo. And goodbye. Sleep well. Much love."

Lesser’s acting career started long before “Seinfeld” and continued after it, notably as a recurring character on "Everybody Loves Raymond." He appeared in numerous major Hollywood films, including “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and “Kelly’s Heroes,” both with Clint Eastwood, “Papillon,” “Lust for Life” and “Birdman of Alcatraz.”

His small-screen resume is a veritable history of American television, with appearances from the 1950s through the 2000s. Here are some of the more notable shows on which Lesser appeared (in reverse chronological order): "ER," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Just Shoot Me!," "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch," "Mad About You," "thirtysomething," "Falcon Crest," "Remington Steele," "Quincy M.E.," "Police Story," "McMillan & Wife," "The Rockford Files," "Medical Center," "Kojak," "The Bob Newhart Show," "The Mod Squad," "Bonanza," "Ironside," "All in the Family," "Green Acres," "Judd for the Defense," "The Monkees," "Get Smart," "My Favorite Martian," "The Munsters," "Ben Casey," "The Wild Wild West," "The Outer Limits," "The Untouchables," "Bat Masterson," "Peter Gunn," "Have Gun — Will Travel," "Gunsmoke" and "Dragnet."

In 2002, Lesser appeared as a Holocaust survivor in an award-winning short film, “Today You Are A Fountain Pen,” in which he teaches his grandson about the true meaning of a bar mitzvah.

Lesser was a working actor who also appeared in films of lower quality. Other titles on his resume include “Frankenstein & the Werewolf Reborn!,” “Sorority Girls and the Creature from Hell,” “Moonshine County Express,” “Supervan,” “Truck Stop Women” and 1965’s camp classic, “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini,” which also featured Mickey Rooney, Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon and Buster Keaton.

Lesser was born in the Bronx, N.Y., in 1922. His immigrant father was a grocer. Lesser told a Jewish newspaper in 2003 that he had a “bar mitzvah from hell when he forgot the text and started singing instead.” He graduated from City College in New York at 15, spent World War II in the China-Burma-India theater, and began acting on his return. Lesser continued to perform on stage and on TV until 2010.

Arnost Lustig, 84, Czech author

Arnost Lustig, a Czech writer who survived Nazi concentration camps, communism and exile to become a successful novelist, died Feb. 26 at 84 in Prague.

He was a two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award in the United States, a winner of the Franz Kafka Prize, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a finalist for Britain’s top literary prize, the Man Booker Award.

Lustig’s fiction, much of which was set during the Holocaust, has been described as a “highly regarded oeuvre of spare and haunting novels,” written in “quiet prose” that makes one grateful “for the fiction that we are reading fiction.”

In a 2007 interview with Czech radio, Lustig spoke with awe about being able to write.

“It is a magic, and you get paid for it, so you can choose it as a profession,” he said.

But Lustig said he became a writer because no one believed his Holocaust experiences.

“When I told (a teacher of mine) where I came from and what happened, he started petting my head," Lustig said. "He treated me like a silly, crazy, sick man; he didn’t believe it. I thought it was impossible to share this experience. So I started writing, and they accepted it because they considered it very authentic.”

Lustig was born in Prague to a family of retailers. In 1941 he was expelled from school because he was Jewish, and was first deported to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia in 1942, and later to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. After World War II, he joined the Communist Party, in part because of his contacts with them during the war.

"In the camps, the best and most unselfish people, the toughest anti-fascists were communists,” he said. “They behaved very well in the camps, and I wanted to be like them.”

Lustig became a reporter and covered Israel’s War of Independence for Radio Prague. By the 1960s he had become disillusioned with communism and called for an end to censorship. He left Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion in 1968 crushed the “Prague Spring.” He lived briefly in Israel before moving to the United States in 1970, where he taught at several universities.

Lustig began publishing fiction in the 1950s and wrote steadily for the next 50 years. Several of his early books of stories were made into films in Czechoslovakia. “A Prayer for Katerina Horowitzowa” was nominated for a National Book Award in 1974. “The Unloved” won a National Jewish Book Award. “Lovely Green Eyes” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2003. He had several unfinished books in the works at his death. He was editor of the Czech edition of Playboy from 1995 to 1997.

Friends said Lustig approached life with “ceaseless good humor and optimism” despite his terrible experience in his youth. He ended his Czech radio interview with a comment about his feelings in his old age: “You know, writers are like clowns. When you applaud them, they are ready to dance forever. You met me when I am very happy, like old clowns and writers being praised."

 

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