Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

R.I.P. Ron Leibman, from Norma Rae and Friends

Ron Leibman and his wife, actress Jessica Walter, together in 2009
Ron Leibman and his wife, actress Jessica Walter, together in 2009
Photo: Bruce Glikas (Getty Images)

Ron Leibman has died. The Tony-winning actor—for his role as Roy Cohn in the 1993 Broadway production of Angels In America—was best known to many in the younger generation for his recurring role as Rachel’s dad, Dr. Leonard Green, on the hit NBC sitcom Friends. But Leibman’s 50-years-plus entertainment career encompassed everything from Broadway, to landmark labor films, to playing foul-mouthed animated car salesman, always invested with an irascible charisma that demanded the best of those around him.

Starting in the theater, Leibman got his first big break in film in 1972, when he starred opposite Robert Redford as a speed-addicted getaway driver in the Donald E. Westlake heist adaptation The Hot Rock. He followed that up with appearances in Slaughterhouse-Five and Norma Rae, the latter of which saw him gain even more prominence by sparring with Sally Field as passionate labor organizer Reuben Warshowsky.

Leibman moved into making his own roles for himself in the late ’70s, most notably creating and starring in a CBS legal drama, Kaz, about a former convict who becomes a defense attorney. The show lasted for only a single season, but it did score Leibman the first major award recognition of his career, bringing home an Outstanding Actor In A Drama Emmy for his efforts on the show. (Or, in his own words, from our 2011 Random Roles interview with him: “I got an Emmy, and the show was canceled two weeks later. [Laughs.] What a business, huh?”) He continued to work steadily through the 80s and ’90s, sporting a resume featuring roles ranging from Sylvester Stallone’s Rhinestone to a single-episode stint on Fish Police. (And also other, better things, although he did at least get a friendship with Dolly Parton out of the former gig.) 

During that same period, Leibman also got married (for the second time), to actress Jessica Walter, with whom he’d share the next 36 years of his life. The duo managed to work together a number of times over the year—including on one of his regular Law & Order appearances, where she appeared as his character’s wife—and most notably on Walter’s show Archer, where he played her sometimes-husband, the wonderfully cranky Ron Cadillac. Leibman frequently described Walter as the love of his life; if you want to get yourself a little choked up today, feel free to watch his Tony acceptance speech for Angels In America, in which he defies the walk-off music to send his wife a silly little joke.

Despite his long career, Leibman ascended into a higher rung of pop culture consciousness in 1996, when he appeared for the first time as Jennifer Aniston’s judgmental father on Friends. (His daughter had to talk him into taking the part.) Despite appearing in only four episodes of the long-running juggernaut, Leibman left an indelible impression as the nearly-impossible-to-please Dr. Green. It’s also a role that seemed tailor-made for his strengths as an actor: aggressively verbal, quick-witted, and with a complete unwillingness to suffer fools.

Leibman died this week, from pneumonia. He was 82.

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