Seinfeld: The Apartment, the immersive fan experience and gallery of Seinfeld memorabilia, graced New York City with its presence this past summer to celebrate its release on Hulu. Today marks a special day as the exhibit opens in Los Angeles, which, according to the folks at Hulu, is the perfect way to honor the upcoming Festivus. The museum will be open till Sunday, December 20 and is full of magical Seinfeld props and sets. There is, of course, Jerry’s apartment where you can find his ’95 Macintosh Performa 200, assortment of framed baseball posters, his ever impressive cereal collection, and, if you open the fridge, a bag of chicken feed. And while the magazines, VHS tapes, and CDs are not originals, they are the same ones Jerry had during season eight, which the curators found at Book Castle in Burbank. Also on display are original iconic props like the Bachman’s pretzel container, the maestro’s wand, the Tropic of Cancer library book, and the original diner table and booth from Monk’s.
During my visit I posed on the red velvet casting couch (where George famously seduced Sheila from the photo store), ate a top of a muffin, stared at some cereal, then conversed with Larry Thomas, known for playing the Soup Nazi. Our discussion follows:
When you auditioned for the role of the Soup Nazi, what did you know about the character?
Less than I’ve ever known about any other role I’ve auditioned for. It was the night before and the call came in around 7:30 p.m. and I knew that the character was called “The Soup Nazi” and I knew they wanted a Middle Eastern accent and nothing else. There was nothing else on paper, no dialogue for me to look at, and the audition was the next morning at 10 a.m. So I have to say it was the easiest preparation ever because it came to me like that and to this day I’ve never thought of playing the character any differently then how it first popped into my head.
And they gave you no direction on how they pictured him, other than the accent?
It’s funny because in the call back I did it my way, all six scenes, and Jerry laughed more than I think I’ve heard anybody laugh in any audition I’ve ever done. He was cackling, cackling, at every single line. I felt like stopping and saying, “That wasn’t even the funny line, man,” and I saw the name of the writer on the side so I knew he didn’t write it. So why is he laughing so much? But he did make me do it again and he said, “Can you do it again and be a little nicer? I don’t understand why he’s so mean.”
Well, you know, I never saw it any other way. My dad was a restaurant owner in Manhattan so I’ve grown up knowing that I never wanted to be in the food service business. It’s frustrating and 16, 18 hour days. So I already knew this guy was going to be a frustrated somewhat angry, impatient guy, probably not in the greatest moods. So unless something cool happened and you put him in a good mood, I figured, it’s business as usual. So I tried to do it Jerry’s way actually and he hardly laughed at all. I’d been an actor for 15, 18 years by that time, and I thought, oh man, another one of those cases where some producer or director thinks they know the character you’re creating more than you. I thought, I’m going to lose this because of that. And then they did hire me and when I got onto the sound stage the first thing Jerry said to me was, “You know what, forget about the direction I gave you and just do what you did when you walked in. The meaner, the funnier. I don’t know why.” That’s when I learned what a truly brilliant, ego-less man Jerry is. Jerry never developed the kind of ego that says, “I’m right and you’re wrong because I’m rich and successful and powerful.” It doesn’t mean anything to him.
At what point did you learn the reality of the Soup Nazi, about the real man he was based on?
It was later, much later. I became friendly with Spike Feresten, the guy that wrote it, we kind of became friendly because I was his break-out character. It was his very first solo script, I think altogether but definitely for Seinfeld. And so he was real proud of the character so we used to talk and then we both ended up being nominated for respective Emmys in his field and my field. We got to talking a lot more then because we were both so excited about it. But little by little he told me about Al, the real guy, and the story of how he was a Letterman writer and he use to get his soup all the time and then he became the Soup Nazi because he had rules. And he’s a pretty cantankerous character although very friendly to me. And I’m now the spokesperson for his line of soups, which is called The Original Soup Man.
He was nice to you right off the bat?
Yeah the first time I ducked my head in to his little soup kitchen on 55th Street he went, “Come in, come in!” I was in town doing a play and I didn’t have the mustache, I was clean shaven from the play, but I literally introduced myself, “Hi I’m Larry Thomas, the guy from that show you hate.” But he was not mean to me. And I did taste his soup that day. That was about seven years after the episode.
So he had time to meditate on it.
Well he’s always hated being called… He hates the N-word, so I’m not allowed to use that in conjunction with his business or anything. And he thinks it’s funny though. It took him years. He did an Oprah. He was on because of some charity soup drive, and they showed the clip that they always show and he watched it and thought it was funny. So now he thinks it’s funny. But he still doesn’t like the N-word.
I suppose it’s a pretty harsh one.
It depends what culture you’re from. I always explain to people when they go, “Have you ever found it offensive?” And I go, “I’m an American Jew and if there’s one word that we have disarmed all our lives it’s Nazi.” It means nothing to us. It’s a joke, it’s like, “Ma, I can’t have a quarter? You’re such a Nazi!” I was saying it when I was a kid. So to us we don’t even go there. So when I heard Soup Nazi my first thought was, oh he’s like this overly-strict, pain in the ass guy. Never for a second did I find it political or whatever. But I did see him as being militaristic so I did audition in an army uniform, the first audition. At the time I was married to an actress and it was her idea for me to wear a beret which made me look like Saddam Hussein. So that was a little subtle twist. I thought, that can’t hurt. If the character is a Middle Eastern guy called the Soup Nazi, wouldn’t he look like Saddam Hussein, in 1995? I got the joke immediately but Al is I think Iranian. So he’s not from a culture where they ever joked around about Nazis. So to him it’s probably a pretty harsh thing to be called.
Do you like being so strongly associated with this character?
I’m a fatalist you might say. I really believe in fate. I’ve lived long enough to stop trying to twist and turn my own fate. I love positive thinking and everything but all these people in this modern day go, “I can make my own fate.” I go, “It’s out there for you.” I think it was Don McLean that said, “No matter which road I would take, all roads lead to where I stand.” And I believe that. And I believe that somehow this is what I was supposed to be, so I accept this and embrace this as a pretty cool gift. I could have gone along with my resume and an iron lung doing little pieces of L.A. theater with four people in the audience. I talk about in my book about being an actor at that time, just before I did Seinfeld, the worst question you could ever be asked was, “What do you do?” Because you’re pouring 15 years of all your spare time into being an actor but the last thing you want to do is say, “I’m an actor” and have them go, “Oh yeah? What have I seen you in?” “Nothing.” “Really? How do you know?” “Because there are four people who sit in the audience and watch my play and you’re not one of them. I’ve memorized their faces.” So when I did Seinfeld I had to right to go, “I’m an actor. I was on Seinfeld.” There’s no downside. And I haven’t been typecast because if you look at the other guest spots I’ve done none of them have been the same.
You’re not a Nazi in everything.
Except for Arrested Development I was Saddam Hussein and in a movie called Postal I was Osama Bin Laden. My Jewish mom is very proud.