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Richard Herd, Boston-born character actor known for ‘Seinfeld’ role, dies at 87

Mr. Herd, in his role in "Rizzoli & Isles."
Mr. Herd, in his role in "Rizzoli & Isles."

Globe Staff and Wire Reports

Richard Herd’s cameo on “Rizzoli & Isles” several years ago was a Boston homecoming.

“The character I play in the episode ‘Partners in Crime’ is even from Southie like me,” he told the Globe in an interview discussing the TNT crime series in 2013. “I grew up in one part or another of South Boston and left for New York when I was 19.”

Mr. Herd, who was drawn to acting as a youth in Boston and went on to a half-century career in films and TV shows that included a notable run on “Seinfeld,” died in his Los Angeles home May 26 of complications of colon cancer. He was 87.

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His memorable film roles included portraying Watergate burglar James W. McCord Jr. in “All the President’s Men” (1976); the head of the utility that owns the nuclear plant that barely avoids a catastrophe in “The China Syndrome” (1979); and General Foley in “Private Benjamin” (1980).

Along with “Seinfeld,” he had roles in TV series such as “T.J. Hooker,” “Quantum Leap,” and “Desperate Housewives.”

Three years ago, Mr. Herd played the founder of a cult in one scene in Jordan Peele’s acclaimed horror film “Get Out.”

“I asked him to think of the scene as a Viagra ad trying to hide deep rage,” Peele wrote on Twitter after hearing that Mr. Herd had died. “He responded, ‘That sounds like all Viagra ads to me!’ Then he absolutely nailed it.”

Richard Thomas Herd was born in Boston on Sept. 26, 1932. His father, Richard, was a railroad worker who died while serving in the Army during World War II. His mother, Katherine Lydon, was a homemaker who married Pehr Swenson, an auto mechanic, after her first husband died.

“As a child I had osteomyelitis, a serious bone infection, and almost didn’t survive,” Mr. Herd told the Globe.

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After becoming ill, “I was in and out of Boston Children’s Hospital — penicillin knocked out the infection and saved my life. Lying there, month after month, you become very stoic. It really stimulated my imagination and I think actually helped me later as an actor.”

As a sixth-grader, he acted in a school production of “HMS Pinafore” and later found his way to community theater.

“Boston was a great theater town when I was growing up,” he recalled. “I worked at the Boston Catholic Theatre and the Peabody Playhouse. During a two-year apprenticeship at the Boston Summer Theater, Claude Rains was there for three weeks, One evening he heard a group of us rehearsing Shakespeare and offered to come in early each night to work with us.”

A stint in the Army during the Korean War ended when an osteomyelitis flare-up led to an honorable discharge. He then began a long period of acting off-Broadway and in regional theater.

In a 1982 Globe interview, Mr. Herd said that when he decided to become an actor, “my ambition was based on a deep desire. I felt I had to jump in, that acting was something I couldn’t get enough of.”

He added that “it’s still an insatiable hunger. I used to work all day, study and rehearse all night, go to bed and awake refreshed.”

His first film role, in 1970’s “Hercules in New York,” featured Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was also making his movie debut.

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Mr. Herd was known for roles on several science-fiction series, among them Supreme Commander John on the miniseries “V” in 1983 and its sequel the next year; L’Kor, a Klingon, on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”; and Admiral William Noyce on “Seaquest 2032.”

He also played Willy Loman in a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” at the Ventura Court Theatre in Southern California in 1995. His wife, Patricia Crowder Herd, played Willy’s wife, Linda.

“After I moved to Hollywood, my career in film and television took off,” Mr. Herd, also painter and sculptor, told the Globe in 2013. “Now I’m also a published poet and artist. One of my paintings was accepted in the California Open Exhibition in August. I have been blessed with many opportunities throughout my career.”

Among those opportunities was “Seinfeld.” For 11 episodes he portrayed Mr. Wilhelm, a New York Yankees executive who reported to the team’s owner, George Steinbrenner — voiced by Larry David, co-creator of the series.

Mr. Herd brought a grandfatherly and slightly daffy demeanor to his dealings with George (played by Jason Alexander), the lazy assistant to the Yankees’ traveling secretary. He was sometimes concerned that George was working too hard or cracking under pressure. And in one episode, he accused George of lying when he perspired under questioning, which George attributed to spicy food.

In one episode, Wilhelm is abducted by a cult that uses a carpet cleaning service as a front. When told by George, who is angry that the cult did not want to brainwash him, that he is a hostage, he responds: “Wilhelm? My name is Tania” — the alias that the heiress Patty Hearst used after being kidnapped by terrorists in 1974.

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“ ‘Seinfeld’ was one of the best jobs I ever had,” Mr. Herd told USA Today in 2015. “It got me a tremendous amount of recognition and still does, because it plays all the time.”

Mr. Herd once recalled that he had been worried he wouldn’t land the “Seinfeld” role as a Yankees executive.

After an audition that appeared to have gone well, he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016, he turned to leave and said: “Look I have to tell you this. I hope it doesn’t make a difference, but I’m a Red Sox fan.” In response, he recalled, “They all threw their scripts at me.”

He added that “the next day, they said, ‘Come on out and play with us.’ ”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Herd leaves a daughter, Erica Driggers; a son, Rick; a stepdaughter, Alicia Ruskin; and two step-grandchildren.

His marriages to Amilda Tachibana and Dolores Wozadlo ended in divorce.

Acting, he told the Globe in 1982, required sacrifices, particularly early in his career, but it was worth the effort.

“I went to New York, took a $19- a-month apartment,” he recalled. “It had no heat, the tub was in the kitchen. The bathroom, it was down the hall; it had to be shared with people in four other apartments. Still, I felt alive. I felt in touch with myself.”

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He added that “the hunger to succeed is a visceral thing. It can be satisfied only by performance. I was driven to perform. I did not think in material terms. My desire to succeed eclipsed the actual circumstances of my life.”

An actor, he said, “is a daredevil, the man on the high wire, the person who tightropes through life without a net. An actor is always starting over.”

Material from The New York Times was used in this report.