It is always a rarity for any television show to become a hit show. Like all of show business, the law of supply and demand just comes into play and by the sheer numbers, it is hard for any show to develop a following great enough to sustain itself and survive in the dog-eat-dog jungle called "television.” Rarer still, a show will sometimes become what we call a "classic.”
And even rarer, almost the rarest of the rare, numbering possibly less than twenty in number, are the classic comedies. I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Dick van Dyke Show, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Simpsons and Friends would all fit into this esteemed category.
Oh yes, and another "classic" sitcom, one of the most brilliant, original TV series of all-time also makes the grade: Seinfeld- the "show about nothing"- which ran for 9 seasons (1989-1998).
Each of the above series has its own classic episodes, particular shows that became ingrained in fans' minds as being exceptionally good: the cream of the cream. The 116th episode of Seinfeld aired on November 2, 1995, during the show's seventh season. It was called “The Soup Nazi".
The Seinfeld episode dealt with Jerry and his friends visiting a popular soup kitchen in New York, where the proprietor was cold and rude- a tyrant. But his customers put up with his rudeness, simply because the soup he made was soooooo good.
Interestingly, the first reference to the actual person “The Soup Nazi" was made two years before Seinfeld, in a very successful hit movie. In the 1993 Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romantic-comedy Sleepless in Seattle, a writer discusses writing a story and says: “This man sells the greatest soup you have ever eaten, and he is the meanest man in America. I feel strongly about this Becky, it's not just about the soup.” This then-obscure reference was mainly ignored by the millions who saw the film, although probably New Yorkers had an "in-laugh" at the mention.
The “Soup Nazi" was, indeed, based on a real person. A man named Ali (“Al") Yeganeh ran an actual soup kitchen in New York. In real life, Yeganeh was, and is, a nasty, mean, sour, unsympathetic man. Interestingly, in New York City he was sometimes referred to as a "terrorist" but not a "nazi" (he was born in Iraq, not Germany).
I would assume that the "terrorist" tag was stopped after 9/11 and is now long gone, replaced by the safer and more politically correct “Soup Nazi" (after all, who isn't offended by the nazis, so it is okay to use them in ridicule or as the butt of jokes and satire). As many of us sadly realize, with the widespread epidemic (so unsympathetic in itself) of "political correctness,” the nazis are one of the very last groups it is still safe to make even the most innocuous jokes about.
Yeganeh ran his soup kitchen as a very tight ship. All of his customers would line up and be forced to obey his strict and formal rules of standing, talking, paying, waiting and requesting the soup the desired. Anyone who deviated in the slightest and offended Yeganeh was immediately told to get out and refunded their money.
Yeganeh's pat line, to any customer who offended him, was “No soup for you!"
The customers put up with Yeganeh's rude behavior and quick temper simply because his homemade soup (especially his crab bisque) was so delicious. New Yorkers and out-of-state tourists alike would line up around the block for a sample of the soup terrorist's delicious concoctions. Incredibly, they happily and willingly would dole out $30 for a pint of the stuff.
After “The Soup Nazi" episode of Seinfeld was aired in 1995, Yeganeh claimed it "ruined his life.” He forbid the word "nazi" from ever being mentioned by any of his customers. Even the slightest reference to Seinfeld will drive him into a rage.
Once, when interviewed about his resentment of Seinfeld, he was reminded that the series had made him famous. “He got fame through me! I made him famous!" Yeganeh raged angrily.
After the episode aired, Jerry Seinfeld and some cast members got together and went to visit Yeganeh's soup kitchen. Yeganeh told them how their show had "ruined his life.”
Seinfeld writer Spike Feresten, who wrote “The Soup Nazi" (it was actually the first Seinfeld episode he ever wrote) was present on the grand occasion. According to Ferensten, Jerry Seinfeld stepped forward and gave Al Yeganeh "the most sarcastic, insincere apology" he'd ever heard. Al Yeganeh's reaction was quite predictable.
“No soup for you!!" he raged, as he kicked Jerry out of his restaurant.
Larry Thomas, an extremely nice guy (I’ve done a few signing shows with him) played the Soup Nazi in the classic Seinfeld episode. Larry, a Jew, takes no offense to the "nazi" tag and says the "nazi" has nothing to do with the Nazi Party as a political entity. Like many actors, Larry had taken "every odd job under the sun,” including being a bail bondsman and court investigator.
(Image credit: Luigi Novi)
Larry's agent called him the night before and told him he had a Seinfeld audition the next morning. He was given no script, and was only told the character's name and that he was of middle eastern descent. To prepare for the audition, he watched the film Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and studied Omar Sharif's accent.
That night, Larry called a friend and discussed the character with him and what he would say. He came up with the line “No soup!" on his own, he thought the Soup Nazi character would say it. His friend loved the line and he made Larry promise he'd use it at his audition.
He received the script the next morning and saw the line “No soup for you!" After he saw this coincidence, he knew the role was for him- he felt he really understood the character.
Larry was nominated for a 1996 Emmy for his wonderful performance (Jerry Seinfeld sent a limo to take him to the Emmy ceremonies). Although he lost the Emmy to Tim Conway, Larry bears no resentment.
The “Soup Nazi" was once included in The Wall Street Journal crossword puzzle, was featured as a category on Jeopardy, and to complete his status as genuine American icon, he was caricatured in Mad magazine.
Larry has also used his character to promote soup kitchens for the homeless. According to Larry "the Soup Nazi" Thomas: “The whole experience was an actor's dream.”
As a final irony for Larry, in May of 1998 his “Soup Nazi" character was called back to do a cameo in the Seinfeld finale. Larry did his brief bit and was all set to give interviews to the press and media. Free publicity- any actor's delight!
The episode aired on May 14, 1998. Unfortunately for Larry, Frank Sinatra died the same night the final Seinfeld episode was aired and all the media dropped anything and everything else to focus on covering Frank's passing.
I always enjoy seeing Larry at signing shows and saying “Hi" and making the usual show biz small talk. Larry was, undoubtedly, typecast as the Soup Nazi, but he also has his own little piece of television immortality.