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WITH AN EYE ON . . . : 55 years on the job and Phil Leeds is still in no ‘Rush’ for recognition

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“What do you need to know?” Phil Leeds asks. “Height? Weight? That I have hazel eyes, that I can move with animalistic grace?”

The 78-year-old actor chuckles over the phone from his Hollywood condo. “Here’s how I describe myself: I am the guy who people say, ‘Here comes what’s-his-face.’ No one ever knows my name, just my face.”

But if the producers of the new CBS comedy “Double Rush” have any luck, viewers will finally know Leeds by name.

The longtime actor plays The Kid, a savvy career bike messenger who can scoot faster on foot through Manhattan gridlock than his younger colleagues can on wheels. The question is whether the midseason replacement from producer Diane English (“Murphy Brown”) can wheel close to ratings powerhouse “Roseanne” at 9 p.m. Wednesdays.

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In the meantime, Leeds is thrilled with the role in the show, which features an ensemble cast led by Robert Pastorelli (“Murphy’s” Eldin). “I feel very secure--finally,” he says.

Of his previous turns as a series regular, Leeds says, “They were on for all of four episodes.” One was nearly 20 years ago in CBS’ “Ivan the Terrible” (1976), starring Lou Jacobi. NBC’s “Singer & Sons” with Harold Gould and Esther Rolle in 1990 fared no better. But his first series, “Front Row Center,” ran a little more a year on the old Dumont network in 1949.

“It’s taken me 55 years to get here,” Leeds says of his new visibility. “I’ve been doing this a long time.”

Like many a comic today, Leeds began doing stand-up comedy in his early 20s. He landed his first Broadway role opposite Betty Garrett in “Of V We Sing” in 1942. Aside from a three-year wartime stint in the Army, Leeds has worked exclusively as a performer--in nightclubs, on stage and in dozens of television series from “All in the Family” to “Dream On.”

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“People always call me when they want a funny old man,” he says. If feature film fans are trying to place the affable Leeds, he points out he was the “mean wizard” in “Rosemary’s Baby.”

“I had no lines, I was mute,” he says of the role. Leeds says director Roman Polanski “was sweet,” but wouldn’t give him lines.

“Dick Van Dyke Show” fans might recall him as Buddy’s “bad pool shark brother.” “That’s just one of many where people say ‘didn’t I see you . . ., ' " he says.

Since his wife Toby’s death in 1987, after 46 years of marriage, he doesn’t go abroad anymore, but does make annual trips to New York and San Francisco and monthly jaunts to Las Vegas.

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He loves to make fellow “Double Rush” cast members laugh: “I can use all my old material on them. They’ve never heard any of the old jokes. Their reference is like 20 minutes ago. Their comic reference is Bill Cosby. They are just a marvelous group.”

They may not be a good influence on him, however. He calls his set mates “a very profane group,” saying he responded to someone the previous day, “ ‘How the hell do I know?’ Can you believe it? I said a dirty word! I’m picking it up! I’m only going to talk like that to a corporate person.”

And while waiting for corporate types to decide the fate of the show, he says he “has a very nice time. I live in a marvelous area. I go out for lunch every day.” He stopped driving two years ago, but hitches rides from friends and takes cabs to get around to auditions and appointments.

“I would love to do a film, but not a major role,” he says. “But I really would love the series to continue. I’d like it to be picked up for at least a couple of seasons, and hey, by then I’ll be 80!”

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“I’ll never retire,” he emphasizes. “Time doesn’t hang heavily on my hands. I’m very comfortable, I don’t need the money, but as they say, you gotta use it or lose it. I keep the blood flowing.”

“Double Rush” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on CBS.


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