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An appreciation: Len Lesser was much more than Uncle Leo

To the children of Canterbury Avenue Elementary School in Arleta, he wasn't a signature 'Seinfeld' character — he was their acting coach.

February 25, 2011|By Beth Shuster, Los Angeles Times
  • Len Lesser was known as Uncle Leo in the hit television show "Seinfeld."
Len Lesser was known as Uncle Leo in the hit television show "Seinfeld." (Associated Press )

The world knew him as Uncle Leo but the students at Canterbury Avenue Elementary School in Arleta knew Len Lesser as their acting coach.

Lesser, who died last week at 88, played a role at Canterbury few of his fans knew about. Most kids and their parents there, in fact, probably never saw an episode of "Seinfeld." They had no idea that Uncle Leo was Jerry's uncle. They just knew he was the older man with the New York accent who showed up after school and every weekend to run lines.

He had hundreds of television and movie credits to his name, yet there he was, spending hours at a school in an out-of the-way, low-income San Fernando Valley neighborhood. Along with his friend, Canterbury's then-magnet coordinator, Marchand Erickson, he co-directed "Fiddler on the Roof," "The Wizard of Oz" and "Oliver!," to name a few of the ambitious productions.

He worked with students who'd never acted before; some were immigrants more fluent in the language of their parents. He urged them to project, look at each other, feel the emotion of the plays. When the script called for it, he urged the squirmy elementary kids to hold hands, even kiss. It could be incredibly awkward. I never saw him lose his temper or heard him raise his voice.

But really he was just one of us. The moms who could sew made costumes, the dads who could paint made the sets and the rest of us found any job we could do. (Let's just say some of us were really good at selling pizza and drinks at intermission.) Whatever you could do, you did.

Lesser loved his volunteer work, his family and friends said. "He was probably even more excited and enthusiastic about it than his work on 'Seinfeld,'" said Tama Ryder, an author who spent a year with Lesser writing his not-yet published memoirs, "Where's the Watch?! and Other Tales From Seinfeld's Uncle Leo." "He loved kids and being with children. Being around all those kids kept him young too."

He certainly didn't take it too seriously. He joked about the kids who didn't learn their lines, wouldn't pay attention. His son, David Lesser, said he talked about how hard it was to work with kids rather than adults. He adored acting and he wanted to pass on that passion, his son said.

"There was no mistaking my dad's love for the theater and acting," David Lesser said recently. "That Canterbury experience was really an outpouring of his love for his craft."

And it wasn't just Canterbury where Lesser spent his off-hours. His son said he volunteered at a North Hollywood senior citizens home and taught drama to special education students. He helped out at an adoption center. "He had a heart," his son said.

The kids appreciated him. On every closing night, when they handed out bouquets (yes, bought by a parent), there was always one for Lesser — their acting coach.

Shuster is an education editor at The Times.

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