Brow Beat

Richard Erdman Has Died at 93. If You Only Knew Him as Leonard on Community, It’s Time to Watch Cry Danger.

Richard Erdman, smirking in a still from Cry Danger.
More than just an elderly community college student.
RKO / Olympic Productions, Inc.

Character actor Richard Erdman has died at the age of 93, Variety reports. Erdman was a prolific actor whose career was defined by working steadily for decades: Between playing a Western Union boy in the 1944 Bette Davis vehicle Mrs. Skeffington and a 2017 appearance in the Ken Jeong vehicle Dr. Ken, there have only been seven calendar years—all after 1995, none consecutive—without a new TV or film performance from Richard Erdman. But he’s best known today for his brilliant work on Community, in which he played the oldest, weirdest community college student in history. The show would drop him into the background scenes to make fun of the main characters as a sort of one-man peanut gallery, and yes, of course there’s a supercut:

Incidentally, Community’s commitment to following jokes all the way through means that Leonard’s YouTube channel was a real thing, where you can see Leonard’s full review of Eugenio’s Four Cheese Pizza, as well as a bonus potato chip review with bonus surprising details about Leonard’s life. You can also find Erdman’s Twilight Zone episode “A Kind of a Stop Watch,” which makes great use of his talent for being manic and annoying, on Netflix, and Stalag 17 is available anywhere classic films that streaming services don’t bother to include in their libraries are sold.

But if you want to see Erdman off by revisiting his best work, you should track down a copy of Cry Danger, the 1951 noir in which Erdman and Dick Powell explore the seamy underbelly of post-war Los Angeles. (You’ll want the crisp UCLA Film & Television Archive restoration, not the blown-out transfer floating around the darker corners of the internet.) The film, directed by Robert Parrish from a screenplay by William Bowers, is worth seeing for its extraordinary, long-lost Bunker Hill shooting locations alone, but Erdman is a revelation, undercutting his natural charm and comedic timing with the menace of a guy who’s sure he sees all the angles. And the film, for all its comedy, has one of the tightest and most claustrophobic premises of any noir. Dick Powell plays a boxer who served five years of a life sentence for a robbery gone wrong before a buddy of his from the armed services returns to the States, confirms his alibi, and gets him a pardon. Fresh out of prison, Powell gets a drink with the cop who put him away (Regis Toomey) and the marine who got him out. Watch the ratchet tighten:

Powell asking Erdman who he is one of those moments that defines noir, where the dial just zooms right past “tourniquet” to “de facto amputation.” Dick Powell produced Cry Danger in the middle of a multi-film campaign to escape his typecasting as a musical comedy crooner, so casting himself opposite Erdman was a huge tactical mistake. But his loss is our gain, and if anything, it makes Cry Danger an even more perfect noir. The protagonist doesn’t realize what a mess he’s gotten himself into until Richard Erdman is reaching over to steal his drink, his scene, and his movie, and by then it’s far, far too late. Occasionally, Richard Erdman was always the greatest.