Estelle Harris, who hyperventilated into the hearts of millions of “Seinfeld” fans when George’s mother, Estelle Costanza, died Saturday in Palm Desert, California. She was 93.
Her son Glen Harris announced the death in a statement sent by Mrs Harris’ agent.
In 27 episodes – starting in 1992 during the fourth season of “Seinfeld”, around the time the show became a pop culture sensation, and continuing until its last episode in 1998 – Mrs. Harris embarrassed and haranimated her son, one of the show’s four main characters, George Costanza (Jason Alexander), and his father, Frank (Jerry Stiller).
During the meltdown of her character, often in response to insults and insults of decency, Ms. Harris a scream that had the intrusive significance of a hyena in his death struggle. As she whimpered over “wait for hours,” the last word had three, maybe four moan-like syllables. The combination of stiffness and violence in her gestures expressed a forbidden level of psychological tension.
Mrs. Harris knew how to turn indignation into a joke.
“You’re not playing comedy,” she told The Chicago Tribune in 1995. “It’s like the Jewish expression ‘crying laughter.’
Her “Seinfeld” debut was one of the series’ most famous episodes: “The Competition.” After George’s mother catches him in a private moment with one of her issues of Glamor magazine, she falls into shock, throws her back out and enters a hospital.
“I go out for a liter of milk; I come home and discover that my son treats his body as if it were an amusement park, ”said Ms. Harris. “Too bad you can not make a living from it” – and now, with her voice rising, she used her working-class New Yorkers accent to milk the sarcasm of the script: “You could sell out on Madison Square GAAARDEN. Thousands of people could see you. You could be one BIIIG STARRR. “
It set the tone for her subsequent appearances, including on other beloved episodes such as “The Fusilli Jerry” (1995) and “The Rye” (1996). She began her scenes in a sensible register of a fleeting emotion – accusations, self-pity, confusion – and by the end of the sequence she reached an outburst so intense that it could only be farcical.
Ms. Harris’ success in the role led to other opportunities to play the shrill and unhinged, including in the “Toy Story” film series, which she gave the voice to Mrs. Potato Head.
At the height of “Seinfeld’s” popularity, Mrs. Harris found herself with the kind of celebrity that drew glances in the street. Something in the emotion with which she portrayed Estelle Costanza had elicited a loving recognition from a national audience.
“Black people, Asians, WASPs, Italians, Jews – they all say, ‘Oh, you’re like my mother,'” she told The Tribune.
Estelle Nussbaum was born on April 22, 1928, in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, where her Polish-Jewish parents owned a candy store. She grew up mainly in Tarentum, Pa., A coal mining town, where her parents moved to help relatives run a country store and to provide Estelle with a gentler setting for her childhood.
Although she was subjected to anti-Semitic insults in her small town, Estelle found a drain in stage appearances. Her father, who she said “spoke the king’s English,” insisted she take allocation lessons from a young age.
She moved back to New York in her late teens and later married Sy Harris, a saleswoman of window treatments. They had three children, and for a time Mrs. Harris was a homemaker.
She meandered through dinner theaters and TV commercials, including a 1983 Handi-Wrap spot: “It does not matter if it does not have it glued: doo-wrap, doo-wrap, doo-wrap,” she sang with skmaltzy enthusiasm.
After her major breakthrough on “Seinfeld,” Ms. Harris’ other major credits include the films “Out to Sea” (1997), starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and “My Giant” (1998) with Billy Crystal.
Mr. Harris died last year. In addition to his son Glen, Ms. Harris of another son, Eric; a daughter, Taryn; three grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
In her Tribune profile, Mrs Harris said she had complained to Larry David, the co-creator of “Seinfeld”, about her character’s constant shouting, but experience showed he was right: “The more I shout, the more they laugh ,” she said.
Mrs. Harris admitted that her personal life prepared her for the role.
“I’m yelling at my husband, but he does not bother,” she said. “He is grateful for the attention.”
Tiffany May contributed with reporting.