Seinfeld's Soup Nazi on His Iconic TV Character, New Culinary Spokesmanship

click to enlarge The Soupman is coming to Saytown. - Courtesy
The Soupman is coming to Saytown.

Actor Larry Thomas, 59, never thought his life would change as much as it did on the night of November 2, 1995. That evening, the 116th episode of the hit TV show Seinfeld aired on NBC. In the episode, “The Soup Nazi,” Thomas played the title character, a strict owner of a Manhattan soup stand who demanded patrons follow a disciplined etiquette when placing an order at his establishment. In 2013, the Soup Nazi’s adage “No soup for you!” was named one of the 60 greatest catchphrases in TV history by TV Guide.

Twenty years since first playing the memorable character on Seinfeld, Thomas is still enjoying the attention he receives for the role. Along with the food, TV and pop culture conventions he is invited to make appearances at around the U.S., Thomas recently signed a three-year contract with the Original Soup Man to be its new spokesperson. Al Yeganeh, who was the inspiration for the Soup Nazi character, owns the soup brand and the original Soup Kitchen International restaurant on W. 55th Street in Manhattan where Seinfeld writer Spike Feresten first got the idea for the episode.

On January 27, Thomas will visit the local H-E-B store at 9238 N. Loop 1604 W. from 2 to 4 p.m. to hand out free samples of Soup Man soup and to talk to fans about his Emmy-nominated role as the Soup Nazi. He'll be joined by NFL Legend Leonard Marshall, who spent 12 seasons in the NFL playing for Giants, Jets and Redskins.  A demo of the soup will run from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

During a phone interview with the Current, Thomas talked about how he came to be a soup spokesman, his new book Confessions of a Soup Nazi, and what kind of soup he likes to make since he is also a cook himself.

Tell us about becoming a spokesperson for Soup Man. How did that come about?

People always come up to me and say, “Oh, I was just at your place on 55th Street.” At first I would correct everybody and say, “No, I’m an actor. I played a character that had a soup stand. But that soup stand isn’t mine.” After a while, I just got so sick of saying that over and over again. So, when people would say that I’d go, “Oh, great! How was the soup? Did you like it?” I let people think what they want to think. It’s such a weird, fading line of reality anyway. I was at a convention with Al one day and people were coming up to me telling me how much they liked my soup. The [Soup Man] business team came up to me and said, “You know, everyone thinks you’re Al already. Would you want to join up with us?”

Any plans on the Soup Man logo changing since it features Al’s face right now?

(Laughs) You know, we haven’t talked about that. I’m sure Al likes his own face on his own soup.

I find it interesting that you’re the new spokesperson for Soup Man because in the past Al has had expressed mixed feelings about that episode of Seinfeld. He even kicked Jerry Seinfeld out of his restaurant a few weeks after the episode aired. How does he really feel about the episode today?

Basically what he doesn’t like is the “N” word (Nazi). He doesn’t like to be referred to in that way. He does agree that the episode is funny and that it brought him a lot of good press and business. He pretty much still blames Jerry. He thinks Jerry called him a Nazi. That’s why he threw Jerry out. He doesn’t have anything against me at all. He fully knows that I was an actor that got hired to play a part.

When was the first time you visited Al’s Soup Kitchen International in Manhattan?

I finally stopped in there in 2002. I was doing a play in New York. I run every morning and was running up to Central Park and I saw Soup Kitchen International and thought, “Aw, man, I should really just stop in and say hello even if the guy throws me out.” So, I stuck my head into his kitchen and said, “Hey, Al. I’m Larry Thomas. I’m the guy that did that TV show you don’t like.” I was trying to be as diplomatic as possible. He goes, “Come in!” We talked a little bit. He was very amiable to me. He said, “I thought you were very funny.”

Did you try the soup?

Yeah, I told him, “You know, I’ve never been here before, but I get asked if I’ve ever had your soup more than any other question I get asked.” [The soup stand] wasn’t opened yet, so I told him I would come back at noon and that I wanted to wait in line like everybody else. So, I did. I got up there and ordered something like chicken and vegetable. Al just looked at me dead seriously and said, “You want the seafood bisque.” I said, “Oh, OK. I want the seafood bisque.” It was amazing. All the stuff they said in the episode that seemed so ridiculous (“You can’t eat this soup standing up, your knees buckle”), it’s true!

And you would know good soup when you taste it because you’re a cook yourself, right?

Yes, ironically. It has nothing to do with me getting cast in the episode. I was just a person who grew up cooking because my mom was a single working mom that didn’t know how to cook. Early on I just started experimenting with making things taste good. I didn’t want to eat TV dinners every night. Soon, I was cooking for my friends.

Talk about your new book, Confessions of a Soup Nazi: An Adventure in Acting and Cooking.

It’s basically 398 pages of stories about my acting career and stories about my cooking. There are about 52 of my own recipes in the book. I tell stories about why I cook things certain ways and why I use this ingredient instead of that one. It’s stuff anyone can cook, but it’s also for foodies who really like to get into what they cook. I’m a really foodie myself. I like to play around with spices and different seasonings.

What’s the best soup you make?

Not everyone is going to like it like I do, but maybe my clam chowder. My favorite soup – in case you wanted to ask because everyone does – is New England clam chowder. I loved it as a kid. When I was a teenager, I was washing dishes at a restaurant in L.A. One of the cooks had just made this clam chowder that was kind of famous. I asked him one day, “So, what’s the secret to the clam chowder?” He pulls out a big can of clam chowder and a big can of clams. He goes, “It’s this and this. I just add more clams.” I said, “That’s why it’s so good! Nobody puts enough clams!”

Has your own clam chowder recipe evolved over the years?

Yeah, but I’ve eating it like that for years. I would just get canned clam chowder and put more clams in it. That was good enough for me. But then I’d go to Boston and everyone would go, “You have to try the clam chowder here!” I would find it too rich the way they make it New England – too much cream. So, for the book, I took a weekend and experimented. My recipe is basically the right amount of clams and potatoes and sautéed onions and celery and garlic and clam juice and low-fat milk, so it won’t be too thick. When it’s all done, you just add cornstarch, which makes things thicker but doesn’t change the taste. I guess what I love about my clam chowder is you get all the flavor of those clams and the clam juice and the potatoes and the sautéed veggies, but there’s not a big cream taste. I’m very proud of it. Also, my split pea with ham soup is really good.

Do you have your own recipe for Mulligatawny (the soup Elaine orders for Kramer during the Seinfeld episode before she is kicked out)?

Yes, I do. More than any other soup I have known, it can be made in so many different ways. It’s an Indian curry soup. Some people make it vegetarian with lentils in it. I make it with a chicken stock base, curry and lentils and chicken and apples and raisins. Al adds mango in his. It’s a sweet and tart curry soup. It’s really super delicious.

How does it feel to still have soup as a big part of your life 20 years after you first played the Soup Nazi?

I feel so blessed to get to do this. I get to take what is probably the most famous role I’ve played – and certainly one of my favorites – and get to continue to play it and goof off with it. It’s loose and not scripted. It’s just me out there with people.

For fans of Seinfeld, the Soup Nazi is so iconic. Do you get a lot of specific requests when you meet people? I’m sure you repeat the catchphrase “No soup for you!” more than I could imagine.

Yeah, they do the craziest things. Many people will go up to me and be like, “Say the line, say the line!” So I’ll yell, “No soup for you!” many times during an appearance. Some people will be really crafty and a couple will come up and start making out in front of me and I’ll go, “You’re kissing in my line? Nobody kisses in my line!” They crack up. You can endlessly goof with people.

As an actor, though, I’m sure you’re always anxious to play other characters.

Yes, being a character actor is what I started out doing in college theater. I realized if I had any talent at all, it was a talent for being able to play different people. In my last movie, a low-budget film called Mind Over Mindy, I play a schizophrenic psychiatrist. I was never really typecast as the Soup Nazi.

So, at H-E-B, are you going to be in character or are you going there as Larry Thomas?

Well, it sort of depends on whatever happens with people. If someone wants me to really give them the business, I’ll fool around like that. If someone wants to ask what it was like working with Jerry, then I’ll answer that question. It’s a big improv thing. It seems to work. We’ve done a few supermarkets already and it seems to be a really fun day. A lot of people show up. They taste the soup and buy it. I fool around with them and take pictures.

But it’s safe to say you won’t be shaving off your moustache anytime soon?

(Laughs) No, it’s part of me. For this character, it’s definitely signature along with the kerchief.

It’s a little cold today in San Antonio, so I’m thinking about getting some caldo for lunch. Have you ever had a good bowl of caldo before?

What kind of soup is that?

Well, caldo is just Spanish for broth, but I guess when people order caldo they’re usually ordering caldo de res or caldo de pollo, which is beef or chicken soup with a lot of veggies like corn on the cob, carrots, squash, and cilantro.

You know, I live in L.A. and I always tell people that it’s a city with great Mexican food. That is our single cultural advantage. We have incredible Mexican food. I’ve been to a few different cities in Texas. I’ve only been to San Antonio one time. But I tell people that I like our L.A. Mexican food better than you’re Tex-Mex Mexican food. But I eat a lot of Mexican food. So, I’ve had some really good tortilla soup and some really good albóndigas soup (traditional Mexican meatball soup). Those are the two I get the most if I’m going to have soup in a Mexican restaurant.

This is off topic, but something people might not know about you is that you’re a gun control advocate. Can you tell me how you started speaking on the topic? What did you think about President Obama’s recent executive order on gun control?

Any step forward is a good step. I was sort of forced into the position to make a decision on the way I felt. When [Mark Serbu, founder of Serbu Firearms] tried to use my face [as the Soup Nazi] on a t-shirt to sell his guns, I had to step up and say something (the shirt had an image of Thomas as the Soup Nazi with the text, “No Serbu for You” because the company refused to sell their BFG-50A semi-automatic rifle to the NYPD after the passage of the NY SAFE Act, a gun regulation law, which classified that specific weapon as an assault rifle). [Serbu] asked me, “What if I paid you?” He offered me money. I said, “I can’t do that. There’s something in me that says I can’t advocate that.” So, when somebody asked me after that if I was for gun control, I said, “You know, I guess I am!”

H-E-B recently announced their stores would not allow open carry handguns despite the new law in Texas that went into effect at the beginning of the year.

Gun control has always made sense to me. I thoroughly understand the Second Amendment guys who don’t want their guns taken away if they’re responsible. But I grew up in a generation that watched one President and two very important political leaders assassinated and a couple of other Presidents’ attempted assassinations. I’ve never wanted to own a gun or shoot a gun. I haven’t really thought out what the plan should be. I know if you try to control guns, crazy people are still going to get them. I know that. But as a society, I think we should attempt to put control on it. I don’t see where [Obama’s executive order] is going to hurt people who go hunting or people who want a gun for their protection. They’ll just have to be registered and there will be more information out there. As the President, he had to do something. Every time crazy people go shoot something up, it’s so horribly tragic. I believe we need to do something to lessen those situations.
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