Character Actor Joseph Leon, Famously in Mostel's Shadow, Dead at 82

News   Character Actor Joseph Leon, Famously in Mostel's Shadow, Dead at 82 Joseph Leon, the Broadway, TV and film actor who took on the title role in Arnold Wesker's The Merchant on the road and on Broadway after the death of original star Zero Mostel, died March 25 in Florida.
Sir John Clements and Joseph Leon in The Merchant.
Sir John Clements and Joseph Leon in The Merchant. (Photo by Photo by Martha Swope)

Joseph Leon, the Broadway, TV and film actor who took on the title role in Arnold Wesker's The Merchant on the road and on Broadway after the death of original star Zero Mostel, died March 25 in Florida.

In 1977, Mr. Leon was understudy to Mostel in the revisionist play inspired by The Merchant of Venice, and found the spotlight in the role only after the sudden death of Mostel in the tryout in Philadelphia, after one performance. The Philadelphia engagement was canceled and Mr. Leon took over in Washington, D.C., and on Broadway.

Susan L. Schulman, press rep for The Merchant at the time, remembered Mr. Leon as "a really good character actor, one of the solid character men in the industry."

"He did a lot of voiceovers and commercials as well," Schulman recalled. "Originally, he had a featured role in The Merchant, and was also the understudy for Zero. I remember him being a very lively, nice man — very sweet on stage and off."

Arnold Wesker wrote to Playbill On-Line by e-mail from London: "My abiding memory of him in rehearsals of Shylock (previously entitled The Merchant) is of a stunned understudy being told he was going to take over the mammoth role Zero Mostel had filled, and of the incredible work he then put into the second round of rehearsals. John Dexter molded a performance from Joe almost as though Joe was clay in his hands. Zero was a performer, Joe was an actor. As a result Joe began making sense of the lines in a way that Zero seemed unable to do, though in fairness to Zero he was a sick man who, even so, might have risen to the demands of the role had he been given a chance to perform it before more than one audience. "Joe rose in rehearsals — through some worrying shmultzy, melo-dramatic and camp moments — to great heights. On the first night on Broadway he was tremendous. Had the critics stopped, for a moment, imagining they were Gods he might have gone on to stardom. He'd certainly have been more appreciated in London."

A more detailed account of the production is found in Wesker's recent book, "The Birth of Shylock and the Death of Zero Mostel."

Mr. Leon was born in New York City in 1918. He was 82 and, according to a paid death notice in The New York Times, died "peacefully." He is survived by his companion of many years, Robin Litton.

His New York City credits included Bell, Book and Candle, Social Security, Glengarry Glen Ross and Cafe Crown, and two dozen more works. He acted in TV and films over a 60-year career. He appeared in such pictures as "Sweet Smell of Success," "Daniel," "Arthur on the Rocks" and "Brewster's Millions."

Mr. Leon was a professor of drama at Hofstra University 1966 1972. He retired from acting in 1989 and moved to France, where he studied French and began writing short stories and an autobiography, "Under the Tallis."

Mr. Leon split his time in recent years between Saugerties, NY and Florida. He died in Bradenton, FL, and memorials will be held in the future on Anna Maria Island in Florida, in Woodstock, NY and in France.

Contributions in his name may be made to The Actors' Fund.

— By Kenneth Jones