Frey was born in Brooklyn, New York. After college, where he studied art with designs on being a painter, he studied acting at New York City's prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse under famed acting coach Sanford Meisner, and pursued a career in theater instead. In 1968, he received critical acclaim for his performance as Harold, a bitter, pockmarked gay man who dreads his birthday in off-Broadway's The Boys in the Band. This landmark play introduced mainstream audiences to the culture of gay men who supported each other, providing friendship, family and, when necessary, reality checks.
Frey, along with the rest of the original cast, appeared in the 1970 film version, directed by William Friedkin.
Frey was nominated for a 1975 Tony Award as Best Featured Actor in a Play for his performance in The National Health. Other stage credits include revivals of The Time of Your Life (1969), Beggar on Horseback (1970), Twelfth Night (1972) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1980). Frey earned an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Motel the tailor in the film Fiddler on the Roof. (He had appeared in the original Broadway production as Mendel, the rabbi's son.) He played Clare Quilty in the Alan Jay Lerner musical Lolita, My Love which closed, before reaching Broadway, in 1974.
Frey's television credits included appearances on Hallmark Hall of Fame, Medical Center, Mission Impossible, Eight is Enough, Quincy, M.E., Hart to Hart, Barney Miller, Moonlighting, and Murder, She Wrote, as well as a co-starring role as the villainous Parker Tillman on the short-lived ABC western comedy Best of the West.
The cast of ‘Boys in the Band’ with playwright Mart Crowley, left. Next to him are Laurence Luckinbill as Hank, the late Frederick Combs as Donald, the late Robert La Tourneaux as 'Cowboy,' the late Kenneth Nelson as Michael, the late Leonard Frey as Harold, the late Cliff Gorman as Emory, the late Keith Prentice as Larry, Peter White as Alan and Reuben Greene as Bernard. (Photo courtesy of the Karpel Group)
On The Mary Tyler Moore Show episode entitled "Ted Baxter's Famous Broadcaster's School," Frey plays the lone student within a sea of empty chairs, and steals the scene, as he insists the main characters "lecture" just to him, even though they were expecting hundreds.
Frey died of an AIDS-related illness in New York on August 24, 1988. His final role was Walter Witherspoon in the ABC's Disney television movie Bride of Boogedy.
The Boys in the Band (1970)
Actors: Kenneth Nelson, Peter White, Leonard Frey, Frederick Combs, Cliff Gorman
Directors: William Friedkin
Writers: Mart Crowley
Producers: Dominick Dunne, Kenneth Utt, Mart Crowley, Robert Jiras
DVD Release Date: November 11, 2008
Run Time: 118 minutes
Amazon: The Boys in the Band
A sensitive yet humorous adaptation of the stage play, this 1970 film directed by William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) is one of the first films to openly address gay issues in a matter-of-fact style that largely avoids stereotyping. Shot on one set and featuring a birthday party as the festive setting, a group of friends assemble to celebrate, reminisce, and discuss their lives and the travails of being gay, even as one friend insists he's straight. The night turns from a light celebration to a sometimes-vindictive ordeal of revelation and betrayal, as each man in turn must confess his true feelings. Performed by the original cast of the stage production, the film may feel dated to some, but it still manages to be truthful and entertaining as it explores a subject that to this day is not often addressed. --Robert Lane
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