Erdman played octogenarian Greendale student Leonard, who was first introduced in the fifth episode of Season 1, “Advanced Criminal Law.” He’d go on to appear in 53 episodes throughout all six seasons of the NBC-turned-Yahoo sitcom, which ran from 2009-2015.
It was revealed in the Season 6 premiere that Leonard had attended Greendale since 1975. Erdman’s scenes typically involved the elderly student cracking wise at the expense of Jeff and the study group, before one of them fired back and said, “Shut up, Leonard,” before revealing something utterly ridiculous about him.
“I knew the day we’d have to say goodbye to this lovely man would come sooner than any of us were ready. But knowing that doesn’t make it any easier,” Community star Yvette Nicole Brown wrote on Twitter. “Richard Erdman was JOY walking. Anyone who saw him on Community gleefully stealing every scene he was in knows that’s true.”
Fellow Greendale alumni Ken Jeong also paid his respects. “Thank you for blessing us with your brilliance,” he said, while also posting a selection of his favorite Erdman scenes to social media. Meanwhile, Joel McHale remembered Erdman as “a good and funny man… We’ll miss you ‘Leonard.'”
Series creator Dan Harmon posted the following tribute to Instagram:
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Godspeed, Richard Erdman. TV sometimes orders actors like pizza (I need a person over 6 foot, no beard, etc.). Richard was on a list of men over 80 willing to swim, so he ended up in a Long Beach swimming pool doing ten takes of a line we used the first take of. To me, reprising “Leonard” was ample reward for almost drowning him. Which is why, when he responded to one of my directions with a fart sound, I thought, man, if this guy dislikes drowning, he’s going to hate unemployment. Then the first AD said “Have you seen his imdb entry?” I looked it up. I think from 1944 to that day, there were four or five skipped years. The man had lived a life on camera. Not as a legacy child star, nothing against them, but he’d moved from Oklahoma to California, started acting and simply. Never. Stopped. Fine, I thought, we’ll write fart noises for him. Creatives are leveraged with the currency of “future.” Do what I say and one day you’ll never have to do what anyone says. You only have to believe that lie while you’re sexy. After that, there’s a line of people behind you, you know the trope. But Richard had worked so long that the “line of people” was god damn short. Hence, there were no favors being done on either side. It was like we rented a cabin and gave an old mountain lion some bacon, so he brought us a fish and we just kept living together. That metaphor stops at the fans. Because of the stupid god damn internet that I invented and will now die hating, he spent his last years touched by an audience he’d only ever known as theoretical. I remember driving him in a golf cart across the Paramount lot, most likely to flaunt my empathy to Chevy, and we were talking about the fans. Richard said, “I’ve never experienced anything like this.” I had to laugh and said “Come on. You’ve experienced everything like this.” He said no. He had no reason to lie. He already knew he could make a fart sound to my face. He could get his bacon somewhere else. He was a pro. But I think he had always done it for those hugs he finally got right at the end. Thank you, Richard. Sorry I always put 60 pound weights in your backpack for realism. You’ll thank me at the Emmys.
Erdman worked steadily as a character actor for over 70 years. His credits included episodes of Alice, The Bionic Woman, Cheers, Felicity, Lou Grant, One Day at a Time, The Twilight Zone and Beverly Hills, 90210. He also lent his voice to numerous cartoons, including The Smurfs, DuckTales and Batman: The Animated Series.
His passing was first reported by film historian Alan K. Rode. A cause of death has not been disclosed.