Today we celebrate a familiar face and voice with a less familiar name: Phil Leeds (1916-1998). Short statured, chinless, with huge nose and ears, and somewhat buggy, fishy eyes, Bronx-born Leeds often played sniveling, shady, shifty stool pigeons, con artists, salesmen, and other untrustworthy types, usually for comedy.
As a kid he worked as a peanut vendor at both Yankee stadium and the Polo Grounds — already duplicitous! He started out in show business as a stand-up comedian in the Borscht Belt in the 1930s. He had a couple of roles on Broadway before serving in special forces entertaining troops in the Pacific during World War Two. He then returned after the war to a more robust Broadway career in major shows like Make a Wish (1951), Can-Can (1953-55), The Matchmaker (1955-57), Romanoff and Juliet (1957-58), and about a dozen others through 1970.
At the same time he was doing stand up at hip venues like Village Vanguard, the Blue Angel, and others in New York and getting tv guest shots on The Tonight Show during both the Jack Paar and Johnny Carson years, The Merv Griffith Show, etc.
Then came the character parts in tv and films. One of his first was as a a pool hustler on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1962). Then he was a song plugger on The Monkees (1966), He’s memorable in three episodes of The Odd Couple (and also The Tony Randall Show and Quincy M.E.), Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Happy Days, McMillan and Wife, several episodes of All in the Family and Maude, numerous episodes of Barney Miller , Starsky and Hutch etc etc etc
Film roles were in the mix too. He was perfectly cast as one of the coven in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) — like the others in those scenes (Ruth Gordon, Patsy Kelly, etc), he’s terrifying because familiar and normal. Also Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water (1969); Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie (1976) and History of the World, Part One (1981); Beaches (1988); Enemies, A Love Story (1989); Ghost (1990), Soapdish (1991), and dozens of others.
He continued working in TV right on through the 1990s: numerous episodes of The Larry Sanders Show, Everybody Loves Raymond, Ally McBeal, and several episodes of the strange ninth season of Roseanne, including one where he reprises his role from Rosemary’s Baby. His role was in the posthumously release film Lost and Found (1999) with David Spade. Has anyone filled the void since then? I can’t think of a soul who could step into Phil Leeds shoes for the very specific niche he filled.
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