He's a big part of TV history but you've probably never seen his face. You've seen the back of his head - a big head - and his hands. They gesticulate wildly, just as you might imagine George Steinbrenner's hands might, in a pique of (say) player rebuke or manager termination.
His name is Lee Bear and he played Steinbrenner on "Seinfeld." Larry David, of course, was the voice.
Some facts about Lee: He's now 74 and is semi-retired, though after his "Seinfeld" run tried to get an agent who would then get him bigger and better gigs - gigs with his face on screen - but never did. He has been in Hollywood since '65, but the agent and big break never came. Instead, he drove motor homes around the country for delivery - and even made a number of trips to New Orleans after Katrina.
Lee is from Milbank, South Dakota, a small town south of the Canadian border and (minor irony alert) the birthplace of American Legion baseball.
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I got off the phone with Lee a little while ago. Here's our chat:
- He got the job through central casting, which was looking for someone who looked like Steinbrenner (Bear says there is a resemblance.) "I went down and they picked me. Simple as that. I guess they wanted someone of larger stature - I'm 6 4...
"Larry [David] didn't tell me anything. It was a very quick thing because everything was shot from behind. They just lined me up against a wall and they picked the guy they liked from the back end. Then they spun me around, and put on a coat and hat...they made me get out of a car, and look at a watch..that was basically it....
"They [cast/crew] didn't tell me anything. I was just supposed to react to what Larry [David] was doing and saying. I was in seven episodes. There were a total of nine. They had another guy in the first two but he had to get out of town, then they had another cast call and got me. They kept me on. Steinbrenner was in one scene too - they were going to use him but they never did for whatever reason. What was he like? He told someone [on set] that [the portrayal] was accurate. He was a nice guy."
[Steinbrenner as TV critic later repeated the observation in a Yes doc - that Bear got him down cold.]
The role never yielded great riches or renown for Bear - partly because he never got any screen credit. And he never got a single dime in residuals, he says:
"I didn't get any screen credit because I didn't do the dialogue. That's the way the union role works. No residuals because I didn't do any dialogue. It's a very bad rule for the union, that's for sure because if you're doing it, you should get something."
"I got the job through central casting. I was registered down there. They were looking for someone who looked like Steinbrenner and I didn't know what he looked like..."
The actor in the first two episodes established the idea - sitting down with back to the camera. "They [the producers] didn't think you could do much as an actor, just sitting in a chair. But I did a few different little things, and Jerry and George said 'that was great.' I did the hand gesture, and did something like a real wound up and hyper guy like George would do - like a real bossy guy waving around his hands, ordering people to do something..."
Before this, Lee had a bit part in "A Clear and Present Danger" - an actual speaking part in fact, and it was just one line. He is credited simply as "Cutter's Bodyguard" ("Cutter" was Harris Yulin's character in the movie.)
He figured the Steinbrenner role would get him "a good agent, but I still couldn't get a good agent, so I got tired of the whole thing and packed it in.
"Steinbrenner was my last role."
Lee's Magnum opus...
"Seinfeld" .... George Steinbrenner (10 episodes, 1994-1998)
- The Finale: Part 2 (1998) TV episode (uncredited) .... George Steinbrenner
- The Muffin Tops (1997) TV episode (uncredited) .... George Steinbrenner
- The Bottle Deposit (1996) TV episode (uncredited) .... George Steinbrenner
- The Calzone (1996) TV episode (uncredited) .... George Steinbrenner
- The Caddy (1996) TV episode (uncredited) .... George Steinbrenner