Journeyman actor Larry Thomas talks with TV STORE ONLINE about being the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld, his first break in the movies with exploitation film legend Don Edmonds and his new book Confessions Of A Soup Nazi.
TV STORE ONLINE: I was doing a bit of research online today and I noticed an entire 2004 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show on YouTube. It features the first reunion of the cast of Seinfeld, and during the show, they play this lengthy highlight reel of the best moments of the show, and of the moments included is the "Soup Nazi." He's the only guest character featured in the highlight reel. What do you think that says about the Soup Nazi and how that character sort of struck fire in the pop culture zeitgeist?
THOMAS: It's really hard to say when you're in the middle of it, so to speak. For the last 20 years people have asked me how it feels. Then they mention the word "icon." I have to say that it doesn't feel like anything. I just feel like me. It really just made it easier for me to make a living afterward. It happened to me later in life. By the time I appeared on Seinfeld I had been a union card-carrying actor for 15 years. Before Seinfeld, I had begun to think that I had made a huge mistake. I was nearing 40. I was married, I had a kid, a mortgage and no viable way to make money. The acting thing just wasn't working. In fact, I was a ball-bondsman for many years while I was acting, and even that wasn't working.
But in the years after the Seinfeld episode aired, I got to do a lot of guest spots on other television shows. Those were fun. And that was my first foray into the world of residuals and re-airings. The fun part of television is that you can say to your friends, fans, or agent: "I'll be on television on Thursday night." But it also introduced me to the world of getting cut out of a lot of things as well. Seinfeld spoiled the daylights out of me. Jerry [Seinfeld] left in almost every decent thing I did the night that we shot my scenes as the Soup Nazi for that episode. I've since heard from Glenn Padnick, the President of Castle Rock Entertainment, that the editor on Seinfeld actually cautioned Jerry by saying: "You're requesting too many of this guy's reactions. The formula is to get off the guest star when they're done talking." Jerry said, "I like his reactions. It's funny." That's why Jerry was so successful, and it's what set him apart. Even though Seinfeld in the end sort of created a formula, it was his refusal to follow any formulas that made it work. To finish answering your question though, I just have extreme gratitude about it all--because it allowed me to continue to be an actor.
TV STORE ONLINE: I just re-watched the episode today and your comic timing is pretty impeccable. The delivery of the dialogue and that stare. Then the actress too, the woman--who is behind the counter with the Soup Nazi--who quickly reaches across the counter to take the soup back out of Jason Alexander's hand...Her timing too is impeccable...
THOMAS: It's funny. The other day my ex-wife was cleaning out a closet and she found some old records that belonged to me. One of them was an old Decca two-album set of W.C. Fields. It's a collection of his vocal only tracks from his movies and it's narrated by Gary Owens from Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. I can't remember where I got this record but I used to listen to it over-and-over. I used to mimic it. I've had insomnia since I was 5 years old. I used to stay up all night watching the old W.C. Fields movies and the Three Stooges shorts on Channel 5 in New York. I credit any ability in comedy to that.
TV STORE ONLINE: So was your first big break as an actor TERROR ON TOUR (1980), the Don Edmonds film?
THOMAS: Well, I wouldn't call it a big break of any kind. I'm sure more people are seeing TERROR ON TOUR now because of the internet then at the time it was released. No one saw it when it first came out. As soon as I saw the film I knew that it had all of my bad acting habits in it. Someone handed me a homemade DVD at an autograph show I did a year or two ago and when I got home I watched it for the first time since it was released. There is the typical bad speech at the end. The "I had to do it..." speech.
TV STORE ONLINE: "They were whores!"
THOMAS: "They were whores..." (Laughing) I was an actor trying to sound crazy because he was crazy. Which is the opposite of what you should do? When I did that film--I wasn't out of the college acting department yet. I had a friend at the time who was going in to audition for the film, which at the time wasn't called TERROR ON TOUR. It was called THE CLOWNS. My friend was really nervous and so I offered to drive him there. I was sitting in the waiting room and Don Edmonds walked in. I remember I had a beard at the time. He said, "Are you an actor?" I said, "Well, I'm kind of an actor. I'm in the college theater department currently..." I didn't know that he was the director, and I wasn't familiar with any of his films like the ILSA movies, for example. He handed me some sides and I read them for him. I can't imagine that anything I did was any good, but for some strange reason he called me and offered me the role of "Tim". I think I made 50 bucks a day or week. I don't remember. It took us about 2 weeks to shoot the movie. And then about a year later he called me in to do a few re-shoots. You can see my hair change length in the movie when you watch it.
Around this time, I also answered an ad to act in a short film for a student at U.S.C. I did that, and the kid invited me to his class to screen it. I walked in and it was [Director] Edward Dmytryk's class. He was the director of so many of my favorite movies. When we watched it I was mortified. I was bad. I was just horrified. As I was leaving, Dmytryk stopped me on the way out and he said, "What did you think?" I told him how horrified I was. He said, "You wanna talk about it?" So we talked about acting. Of course, he talked about Robert Mitchum. He said, "The thing about Mitchum is that he never acted. He always just did exactly what the character was doing." He said that Mitchum had a photographic memory. He'd come in in the morning, read his script pages, and then crumple them up.
TV STORE ONLINE: The Soup Nazi works so well because he does what the character is supposed to be doing and he's almost like a statue in a way.
THOMAS: Trying to hold still is something that comes out of the theater. I was trying to be as still as humanly possible. The more still you are in a close-up the better you are. There was an element of the Soup Nazi where I knew that he would be powerful if I was really still, but at the same time, they were shooting me with 4 cameras at the same time. So you don't know where you close-up will be. I just thought that he should stand his ground and be still. It was shot in front of an audience, but that didn't bother me. What got to me a little was the fact that there were these 4 cameras shooting me at the same time. It was a lot of equipment to be pointed at you. I just kept thinking at the time that if I made a mistake--it would cost them more money to do the scene again then what they were actually paying me. In a way, it really made me feel like I was in a box. That's why I was really still. It works though.
TV STORE ONLINE: On the Seinfeld DVD set, there's a little 10-minute special feature for the Soup Nazi episode which features you and the episode writer Spike [Feresten]. Feresten talks about how after the Soup Nazi episode aired it got awful reviews from television critics and then the next day, almost like magic, it blew up and the phone was ringing off the hook about how great it was. Was that your experience seeing the episode air?
THOMAS: During the week that we were rehearsing the episode there was a lot of talk going around about how the episode was going to be a throw-a-away. People were bending the ear of [Director] Andy Ackerman about it. It was the first episode that Spike had written. I said to myself, "Well, it will be the worst episode of the Seinfeld series, but who cares, they're paying me $2610.00 dollars. And I really need this money." We shot it, and a couple weeks later, a friend of mine in acting class, who knew someone who knew Jerry, reported back to me that Jerry had a really good feeling about the episode. The night that it aired, my wife, my son, and a bunch of my friends went to watch the show at a restaurant. About halfway through the episode, we heard this horrible crash outside. We all went outside and my friend's car had been totaled by a van full of illegals. So I never saw the whole episode the night it aired.
TV STORE ONLINE: Tell me how your new book Confessions of a Soup Nazi: An Adventure in Acting and Cooking came about?
THOMAS: For so many years I've been fielding this fading line of reality that television viewers have. They want to know if I really cook when they meet me. And even understanding that the Soup Nazi was actually based on a real person in New York City, I'll get approached by someone and they'll say "I was at your place in New York, but you were closed for the summer..." People started asking me when I was going to put out a cookbook. It became a joke over the years. The truth is that I've been cooking since I was 5 years old. My Dad was a restaurant chef. So maybe I inherited his talent. My big dish is my chili. I developed it while I was in college. I used to take it in for parties and I used to joke about how I would only be cast in plays in college because everyone knew that I would bring in my chili. In 2012, I was visiting some friends in Pittsburgh, and they're business people. My friend Linda said, "If you write this book, I'll publish it and do all the work."
I've never written down any of my recipes so I thought that any book that I would write would be a fairly thin volume. While I was in Pittsburgh, I sat down at a computer and wrote out about a half of page for it. It ended up being the first page of the book. I showed it to my friends and I said, "This isn't a cookbook so much as it is about a little kid who grew up in Brooklyn with a single working mother that never learned to cook..." I had to turn to cook or I would've ended up surviving on TV dinners. What my mom would do would be to go out on a date, order a meal, and never touch it. She would bring it home in a doggie bag for us, and she would make for herself the only thing she knew how to make: macaroni and ketchup.
About a year passed after I came back from Pittsburgh, and I was in the middle of a slow period. I was sitting in my apartment and I thought about the book. So I wrote a few more pages and sent them to Linda. She wrote back saying, "I know the format your book needs to be in. It needs to be a memoir about your career interwoven with the things that you've learned to cook along the way."
TV STORE ONLINE: Any chance of a recipe for a certain soup from the Seinfeld episode being in the book?
THOMAS: The Mulligatawny? In fact, when we were shooting the episode I was one of the only people who knew what a Mulligatawny was, because my ex-wife, who was a great, amazing cook, had a great recipe that she used to make us. So when it came time to finish the book, I thought that we should include a recipe for Mulligatawny. I had thought about asking my ex-wife for her recipe, but my friends encouraged me to develop my own for the book. So the book features stories about my career as a journeyman actor with recipes that I developed. It took me a weekend to develop the Mulligatawny. I made four versions because everyone makes their own version. We had about 15 friends over to vote on which should go in the book. I also came up with my receipt for Chicken Noodle Soup and Jambalaya as well.
TV STORE ONLINE: How long did it take you to write the book?
THOMAS: It took me about a year to write it. And then once it went to the publisher it took another year after that with galleys and edits. At the end of it, I had over 300 pages.
TV STORE ONLINE: What was the audition like for the Soup Nazi part?
THOMAS: Well, I didn't think I had any chance of getting the part because when I walked in I saw actor Richard Libertini waiting to audition. You would have to be an idiot not to hire him. He's created classic characters. He's so great. I went in and they called me back. I thought that I had less of a chance of getting that role than anything I had auditioned for before. Eleven years after the episode aired I was on Spike Ferestein's talk show and backstage I was talking with Spike and the crew about the episode and they started asking me questions about the audition. I said, "Don't ask me. Spike was in the room when they cast me..." It was then that I found out about everything that went on in the room that day. What actor gets the chance to find out about these types of things? It wasn't an across the board decision. The casting people were having what Spike called a "conceptual disagreement." Apparently, people in the room had wanted to cast Richard Libertini while some had wanted to cast me, but no one knew who I was at the time. And everyone in the room was a fan of Richard Libertini. I found out later, too, that they were also considering casting Tony Shalhoub in the part.
It was Jerry who turned to Spike in the casting room and said, "Well, it's your script. You decide." And Spike said, "I like that angry New York guy, because that's what the guy in New York is really like." When I first auditioned for Jerry, he loved it. But when they called me back in Jerry said, "I don't get why he's always so angry. Can you do it this way?" And he started to wave his hands around in peaks and valleys. He wanted me to be angry and then nice. So I did it that way and he didn't laugh once. When they told me that the character was called the Soup Nazi I knew that I had to play him as Saddam Hussein with a dash of Hitler. I went into the audition wearing military fatigues and a beret. When I put the beret on, my wife and I realized: Holy shit! I do look exactly like Saddam Hussein! Which was a big thing in 1995? With the Soup Nazi being so short-tempered all the time, I took that from my dad. Even though my dad left us when I was 5-years-old, I have memories of him coming home from the restaurant and just looking so angry.
TV STORE ONLINE: Did you ever met Al Yeganeh, the real guy the Soup Nazi was based on in New York City?
THOMAS: I did. I first met him in 1999. Inside Edition was doing something on him, and they found out that I was in New York at the time, and so they called me and asked me to come up to his soup kitchen. I went up and they introduced us. Al started ranting and raving about Jerry and about how the Soup Nazi had ruined his life. He was yelling at the camera people to get out of his face. But he shook my hand. Of course, it didn't make the news though. Then in 2002, I met him again. I was in New York in a play. I stuck my head in the door to say hello and he invited me in. At the time I didn't have my mustache so no-one noticed me there. But I came back later, waited on line to get my soup and when I got up to the counter I said, "I'll have the Chicken and Broccoli." He looked at me and said, "You want the Seafood Bisque." I said, "Okay. I'll have the Seafood Bisque." I got the bread even. I took it back to the hotel. It was unbelievable. Your knees really do buckle when you eat it.
For more with Larry Thomas or to order his book "Confessions Of A Soup Nazi" please visit his official website here.