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Phil Leeds, 82; Veteran Character Actor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Phil Leeds, the veteran character actor with the recognizable face and unknown name who said casting agents always called “when they want a funny old man,” has died. He was 82.

Leeds, who appeared in the final or seasonal episodes of four popular series during a network sweeps week in May, died of pneumonia Sunday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Leeds was seen that week as Uncle Mel on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” a wizened old man on “Murphy Brown,” an old comic on “Ellen” and Judge Boyle on “Ally McBeal.”

“Here’s how I describe myself: I am the guy who people say, ‘Here comes what’s-his-face,’ ” Leeds told The Times with customary humor in 1995. “No one ever knows my name, just my face.”

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At the time, he was seen weekly as the Kid, the oldest messenger who moved through crowded Manhattan streets faster on foot than his young colleagues pedaled on bicycles in the television series “Double Rush.” Leeds quipped that the single-season series was his most successful since his first, “Front Row Center” on the old Dumont network in 1949.

His most recent short-circuited series was this year’s “The Closer,” the Tom Selleck show on which Leeds played Ned.

Among his roles in memorable motion pictures were the mute mean wizard (his description) in “Rosemary’s Baby” and the emergency room ghost in “Ghost.” He also performed in not-so-memorable films such as Richard Dreyfuss’ “Krippendorf’s Tribe” this year.

Born in New York City and reared in the Bronx, Leeds attended City College of New York and served in the Army special services during World War II.

He started doing stand-up comedy in New York clubs in his 20s, supplementing his income as a peanut vendor at Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds.

Leeds made his Broadway debut in 1942 opposite Betty Garrett in “Of V We Sing.” His long list of stage credits included “Make a Wish,” “Can Can,” “The Matchmaker,” “Romanoff and Juliet,” “Christine,” “Sophie,” “Dinner at Eight,” “Little Murders” and “Inquest.”

When he wasn’t busy on Broadway, he continued working in clubs during the 1950s and 1960s, appearing with Harry Belafonte at the Village Vanguard, Barbra Streisand at the Bon Soir, and Mike Nichols and Elaine May at the Blue Angel.

Outside New York, he had major roles in “Bells Are Ringing,” “Song of Norway,” “Oklahoma” and in San Francisco in 1973 in “The Sunshine Boys.”

That year he moved to Los Angeles to appear in “Two Gentlemen of Verona” at the Los Angeles County Music Center--and stayed on to work in television.

Among the well-known series featuring that well-known face were “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Barney Miller,” “The Golden Girls,” “Night Court,” “Roseanne,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Dave’s World,” “Coach,” “Mad About You” and “Wings.”

After the 1987 death of his wife, the former Toby Brandt, Leeds curtailed his travels but continued to work. He stopped driving but hitched rides from friends or took taxis to get to auditions and jobs.

“I’ll never retire,” he said in 1995. “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.”

He lunched daily at Hampton’s Hollywood Cafe, where he had his own table and which named its Phil Leeds’ Pepperburger in his honor.

“We called it the ‘pepperburger’ because it was well done and spicy like he was,” a spokeswoman said Tuesday. “If you were a woman, you never dared stand too close to him. He pinched.”

She said Hampton’s will sell the Phil Leeds’ Pepperburger at half-price all week as a memorial to its favorite customer.

Honey Sanders, Leeds’ longtime agent and friend, said services will be private. She said any memorial donations can be sent to the Actors Fund of America, 1501 Broadway, New York, NY 10036.


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