Uncle Leo Fulfills a Dream

“If you’re a pretty good actor and live long enough, you can play any role,” said Len Lesser, sitting on a worn couch just after finishing an evening performance at A Noise Within in Glendale.

At 80, and after close to 60 years on stage, screen and television, Lesser has proven his own adage. During the last 15 years, he has even become a public face, mainly through recurring roles as Uncle Leo in “Seinfeld” and Garvin in “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

But before that, “I played gangsters, heavies, Russians and Italians,” he reminisced. “I’ve done everything.”

Altogether, the long-time Burbank resident figures he has appeared is some 50 feature films and more than 400 TV shows, plus theatrical performances at the Taper Forum, Ahmanson and at venues across the country.

A recent stint included a moving role as an avuncular Holocaust survivor in Israel director Dan Katzir’s “Today You Are a Fountain Pen.”

Now Lesser is fulfilling a decades-old ambition by playing Gregory Solomon, a wizened New York secondhand furniture dealer, in Arthur Miller’s “The Price.”

One of Miller’s less frequently performed plays, “The Price,” written in 1968, wrestles with the author’s familiar themes — family conflict, personal and social responsibility and the price we pay for our past actions.

A Noise Within, a repertory company that over the years has maintained an enviable standard as one of the most professional and skilled theatrical venues in the Los Angeles area, does full justice to the subtleties and complexities of the Miller drama.

Its two protagonists are middle-aged brothers Victor and Walter Franz, who are selling off the furniture left behind by their recently deceased father.

When the once-wealthy father was wiped out by the Depression and became a physical and emotional wreck, son Victor (Geoff Elliott) sacrificed his ambition to become a scientist to take care of the father and became a local cop.

Brother Walter (Robertson Dean) shrugged off his responsibilities, left home and became a successful surgeon, while Victor’s wife (Deborah Strang) has turned into an unhappy and unfulfilled woman.

The fourth character is Solomon, come to appraise the furniture. It is not a comic role per se, but Lesser turns the man into a true original.

A lifelong New Yorker, Solomon has seen and survived everything, including four wives (he said the current one stays at home with her “100 boids”). He is a man who would rather talk than deal and is blessed with some of Miller’s best lines.

Though written in the supposedly idealistic and rebellious ’60s, the play has a very contemporary feel when Solomon observes, “When people were unhappy, they used to go to church or start a revolution. Now they go shopping.”

At one point, while Victor keeps pressing him for an appraisal, Solomon leisurely takes a hard-boiled egg and a jar of water out of his briefcase. In a wonderful ritual of consuming this repast, he will remind old timers of Charlie Chaplin’s classic shoe-eating routine in the “Gold Rush.”

Lesser said he has seen “The Price” many times but was never satisfied with the depiction of Solomon.

“They played him like a Yiddish stereotype in a vaudeville show, like a caricature,” he said. “That was all wrong. Like all Miller characters, Solomon is multidimensional.”

Lesser was born in the Bronx, the son of a grocery clerk, and vividly recalled a bar mitzvah from hell when he forgot the text and started singing instead. He got his acting start at 17, playing Lenny in “Of Mice and Men” at the neighborhood Settlement House.

“I was very shy and introverted, and I liked the applause and the communication with the audience,” he reminisced. “In my family, we didn’t talk much.

He earned a degree in economics and government at the City College of New York, but after he was discharged following Army service in the Pacific, he asked himself what he wanted to do the rest of his life. Lesser decided on an acting career and studied under Uta Hagen and Lee Strasberg.

After that, “I became a starving actor in summer stock, but when television came in, I got my first part with the CBS ‘Philco [Television] Playhouse,'” he recalled.

In the early ’50s, with some change in his pockets, Lesser met and married a farmer’s daughter from California, and in his first visit to her very WASPish and conservative parents, he felt as out of place as a Woody Allen movie character in a similar situation. (At the wedding ceremony, Lesser forgot the ring and substituted a cigar band.)

But he liked California enough to settle down here.

He has continued on the TV circuit, and although a lot of the sitcoms he played in were pure “chazerai,” using the Yiddish term for junk. “You made more money in one day than in six months in New York,” he said.

Now married to actress Jan Burrell, Lesser closed the interview close to midnight.

“You gotta excuse me,” he explained, “I have an early TV shoot in the morning.”

“The Price” will play though Dec. 4, in repertory withShakespeare’s “Coriolanus” and Moliere’s “The Miser.” For tickets andinformation, phone (818) 240-0910 or visit www.anoisewithin.org .

Writers: Redd Still Gold on TV Land

Fred calls Lamont a “big dummy.” Aunt Esther warns Fred to “Watch it, sucka!” Fred fakes a heart attack, crying out heavenward, “Elizabeth, I’m comin’ to join you!”

Thirty years ago, when few representations of blacks appeared on television, “Sanford & Son,” starring Redd Foxx, brought such gags into the pop culture lexicon. And for most of its 1972-1977 run, a couple of Jewish boys, Saul Turteltaub and Bernie Orenstein, oversaw the writing on the top-rated African American sitcom. Today, “Sanford” is the second most-watched program among viewers age 25-54 on rerun cable outlet TV Land, trailing only its doppelganger — the wholesome, decidedly white “The Andy Griffith Show.”

As unassuming as it was, “Sanford & Son” — created by Norman Lear, the man behind “All in the Family” — was also something of a groundbreaker. It preceded Lear productions “Good Times” (1974) and “The Jeffersons” (1975) as the first true black sitcom. “Sanford,” loosely based on the British “Steptoe & Son,” hinged on the tension between Foxx’s Fred Sanford, a crotchety, wisecracking South Central junk dealer, and son Lamont (Demond Wilson). Like other Lear sitcoms, “Sanford” married character-driven humor with edgy racial commentary. The show never left the Nielsen Top Ten.

Turteltaub and Orenstein came aboard as producers with the show’s third season.

“The first meeting with Redd was very interesting,” Turteltaub, 71, recalled, “because Redd was down in Mexico holding out for money.”

But on the plane home, Foxx ran into good friends Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, who had broken the color barrier by having the salty comedian open their Vegas shows.

“Redd admired Eydie,” said Turteltaub, who, with wife Shirley, was good friends with her. Foxx discovered this, and had no choice but to embrace his new producers.

“Within three or four shows, we were great friends,” Turteltaub said. “Redd was absolutely wonderful, tremendously talented,” added Orenstein, 72.

The Hollywood-forged Turteltaub-Orenstein team has its roots back East. Turteltaub grew up in a middle-class Englewood, N.J. kosher home. After attending Columbia University Law School, Turteltaub landed writing gigs on shows like “Candid Camera.” Meanwhile, Toronto-native Orenstein came to the United States in 1965 and began writing song parodies for Dean Martin and Bing Crosby. While writing on “Hollywood Palace,” he met Turteltaub. The pair wrote for “That Girl” before segueing onto “Sanford.”

“Partnerships in situation comedy are advantageous,” Orenstein said. “I was stronger in story, Saul’s a brilliant joke writer.”

Their Jewishness often crept into “Sanford,” such as the episode where Fred erroneously learns that his ancestors were Jewish. He visits Fairfax Avenue during that episode, written by the late Rabbi Joseph Feinstein of Beth Jacob Congregation.

“He was my rabbi at Beth Jacob,” Turteltaub said, “and he had a great sense of humor.”

Episode 97, “Steinberg and Son,” flirted with downright surrealism when Fred and Lamont are tipped off to a sitcom, “Steinberg and Son,” which features their Jewish counterparts. Anticipating a million-dollar lawsuit, an infuriated Fred demands to meet with producer “Bernie Taub” (an amalgam of Orenstein and Turteltaub). To Fred’s surprise, Taub turns out to be black. He responds, ironically, that a black “Sanford” would never work. Fred deadpans at the camera.

Turteltaub and Orenstein enjoyed peppering the scripts with Jewish references.

“Redd knew because we were doing it that he was not stepping over the line,” Orenstein said.

Unlike junk, political correctness had no value for Fred, which may be the essence of the show’s appeal.

“In today’s society, everyone’s so concerned about not offending somebody,” said TV Land General Manager Larry Jones. “For Fred, he just said it. It’s freeing.”

The writers, who went on to work for “Kate & Allie” and “The Cosby Show,” continue to collaborate. The Turteltaubs, active in Jewish Los Angeles, celebrate their 43rd anniversary this month. Son Jon is a successful film director. Orenstein decided to attend college and pursue a history degree.

The writers look back fondly on their “Sanford” experience.

“Redd was very protective of me and Saul,” Orenstein said. “The NAACP didn’t think two Jews could write a black show. [Were they] implying that we could only write about two middle-age Jews?”

Reruns of “Sanford & Son” air weeknights on TV Land from 6-7 p.m. and 9 p.m.

Still a ‘Hero’

Robert Clary doesn’t really enjoy sitcoms.

Even though he played the French sidekick on one of television’s most unusual sitcoms, "Hogan’s Heroes," the POW situation comedy (1965-71) set during World War II.

"I prefer more dramatic shows," said Clary, 75, who enjoys watching "The Practice" and "The West Wing."

His just-released autobiography, "From the Holocaust to Hogan’s Heroes" (Madison Books, $26.95), not only retraces his career from Capitol Records recording artist to sitcom star but also an ominous part of his life many did not realize he had survived: the Holocaust.

"When the show went on the air, people asked me if I had any qualms about doing a comedy series dealing with Nazis and concentration camps," Clary said. "I had to explain that it was about prisoners of war in a stalag, not a concentration camp … they were not guarded by the SS, but by the Wehrmacht."

"I was an actor who was asked to play the part of a French corporal prisoner of war and not a little Jew in concentration camp, and I never felt uncomfortable playing Louis Lebeau."

Of Polish Jewish descent, Clary (ne Robert Max Widerman) was born and raised in Paris. In his memoir, he recalls with vivid detail his life of living hand-to-mouth after being taken to Drancy and then to concentration camps — Blechhammer, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald — not knowing when death would come for him.

"I tried to write it the way I talk," said Clary of the book.

And he’s not paying lip service. "From the Holocaust to Hogan’s Heroes" isn’t a sugar-coated, selective hagiography. Clary is brutally frank about every facet of his life, such as his own developing teenage sexuality while interred in a concentration camp.

"My sex was a piece of bread," Clary said.

As an actor in postwar Hollywood, Clary never dwelled on his Holocaust past. "I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me," Clary said. "I wanted them to love me for what I brought to my craft."

Clary enjoyed his long marriage to his soul mate and his late wife, Natalie, whom he was introduced to by his friend, Merv Griffin. She died in 1997, and last year, Clary also lost his most enduring friendship from "Hogan’s Heroes" when Werner Klemperer (Colonel Klink) lost his struggle with throat cancer.

Today, Clary prefers the chirping birds and sunshine at his quiet Beverly Hills home over the smoky Parisian piano bars of his youth.

"I don’t like big cities anymore," Clary said. "New York, London, Paris. They’re all great cities, but I don’t enjoy living in the rat race."

If there’s one message that Clary wants readers to extract from his memoir, it’s to "stop wasting time hating. Do something with your life that’s positive, not negative."

Which is exactly what Clary has done in his post-"Hogan’s Heroes" years. With the help of Simon Wiesenthal Center, Clary fell into an unintended role as lecturer, taking his Holocaust experience and turning it into a relative positive by using it to enlighten public school students. Clary even ends his book with an appreciative letter from a Spanish teacher who heard Clary speak.

Despite recently losing his wife, Clary’s appetite for life continues undiminished. Aside from promoting his book this year and the occasional Holocaust lecture, Clary enjoys his off-camera existence.

"All I want to do is paint and do a CD every year," Clary said. "I always said I will not be in the business unless somebody calls me with a great part."

"All my life I’ve been close to death," he continued. "Either you join them or you’re going to live. I just live."

Robert Clary will sign copies of his book on Feb. 26 at 7:30 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, 10850 W. Pico Blvd.,Los Angeles, (310) 475-4144; and on March 20 at 8 p.m. at Book Soup, 8818 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 659-3110.

No Laughing Matter

Don’t get Howard Rosenberg started on the snobs who dismiss sitcoms as trash.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times TV critic thinks they’re an American art form, which is why he’s hosting "The Serious Side of Laughter," a panel discussion about television comedy Feb. 17 at the University of Judaism. The panelists — responsible for some of the biggest yuks on the tube — include Sam Simon of the groundbreaking animated series "The Simpsons," Judd Apatow of the quirky college romp "Undeclared," Phil Rosenthal of "Everybody Loves Raymond" and Larry Wilmore of "The Bernie Mac Show."

The plan is "to discuss the creative process, how hard it is to get comedies on the air and the biggest challenges faced," says Rosenberg, himself renown for a legendary acid wit.

The panel will also dissect the latest sitcom trends, including stand-up comics playing themselves and escalating nooky on television: "The cable channels have no restrictions, so the networks are keeping up," Rosenberg says. Noting that three of the four panelists are Jewish, he adds "We’ll raise the question, ‘Is there Jewish humor on TV?’ And does the style of a show’s humor always reflect the ethnicity of its creator?"

Rosenberg thinks so when it comes to "Bernie Mac," which revolves around an African American family: "But then again, I’m just a white Jewish guy from the suburbs," he admits.

He’s less conflicted about the relevance of TV comedy. "A lot of the shows are inane, but you can’t dismiss as inconsequential something 20 million viewers watch every week," he insists.

For more information about "The Serious Side of Laughter," call (310) 440-1546.