Mother to George Costanza, wife of Mr. Potato Head, Estelle Harris had a comic style all her own
Estelle Harris (born Nussbaum) who died April 2 at age 93, proved that sources of laughter in American Jewish television sitcoms are incisive self-awareness and time-honored tribulations.
Harris was paired with two of the loudest, most obstreperous Jewish comedians of the modern era, Jerry Stiller in TV’s “Seinfeld” and Don Rickles in Disney’s “Toy Story” film series. As Estelle Costanza in the former and Mrs. Potato Head in the latter, she fulfilled the role of short, stout, Jewish loudmouth, a familiar international stereotype incarnated in the UK by the immortal clown Rita Webb.
As Mrs. Costanza, Harris was initially asked to bellow at a passive spouse played by John Randolph (born Emanuel Hirsch Cohen), an accomplished character actor accustomed to suffering from having survived the Hollywood blacklist during the McCarthy Era.
However, in rehearsal, audiences did not thrill to the sight of Randolph absorbing his spouse’s hysteria like a punching bag. So the “Seinfeld” showrunners recast the role with the ultra-aggressive Jerry Stiller. Confronted by Harris’ vehement mishegas, Stiller yelled right back at her. Together the pair created a Jewish comedic version of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots.
There was nothing new about bickering Jewish couples in American comedy. Philip Rapp, a writer for Eddie Cantor and Fanny Brice, had created the sketch comedy series “The Bickersons” for NBC radio. More recently, there were Bea Arthur and Bill Macy in Norman Lear’s sitcom “Maude.”
Yet Lear’s earnest progressive slant, expressed by constant meaningful subject matter, made the squabbles of Maude and Walter Findlay eventually seem dated and shrill. By contrast, Larry David’s characters in “Seinfeld” openly acknowledged that their hysteria was “about nothing” and their regular explosions caused by trivia gained a permanent surreal quality.
Instead of a Stanley Kramer drama gone wrong, as Lear’s sitcoms sometimes devolved into, Estelle Harris and company gyrated in the grotesque absurdist tradition of playwright Alfred Jarry’s characters Mother and Father Ubu, but with more Yiddishkeit.
Born in Manhattan to Polish Jewish immigrant parents, Harris postponed her dreams of acting glory (like many another Jewish woman performer of her generation, including Estelle Getty) until her children were raised.
She was eventually typecast as the mahjong playing yenta Esther Shapiro in the 1991 series “Brooklyn Bridge,” about a middle-class Brooklyn Jewish family in the 1950s. As Estelle Costanza, she would still be playing mahjong. But her career was not limited to this avocation.
Indeed, her first job in the movies was as Irma in 1977’s “Looking Up,” a tale of modern-day woes of three generations of a middle-class New York Jewish family. Written by Jonathan Platnick, who later dramatized the ordeals of the Argentine Jewish journalist Jacobo Timerman, “Looking Up” was received respectfully, although it was no box office triumph.
Glimmers of an earlier time of Jewish tsuris were also seen in one of Harris’ first major Hollywood films, the epic crime drama “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984) directed by Sergio Leone and starring Robert De Niro. In this tale of Jewish gangsters in New York, Harris played the mother of a young girl who grows up to be a brothel manager.
A somewhat illicit aura continued in later roles. Jerry Stiller claimed that the Costanzas in “Seinfeld” were a Jewish family “in a witness protection program.” This metaphor addressed the fact that even if characters were not overtly described as Jewish in scripts, if Harris and Stiller were cast in the roles, they forcibly became Jewish. The mention of witness protection also implied involvement in unmentioned past crimes, possibly to explain the mishpocheh’s sociopathic behavior.
Being inevitably seen as Jewish was not a liability in landing the role of Mrs. Potato Head in the “Toy Story” series. Disney initially considered casting non-Jewish actresses to face down Rickles, including Betty White, Carol Burnett, Cloris Leachman and Florence Henderson, but Harris and caricatural Yiddishkeit won the day.
Like most comedians, Harris was skilled at acting dramatic roles, and once recounted how, when starring in a theater-in-the-round production of William Inge’s “Come Back, Little Sheba,” about a housewife whose beloved pet dog ran away, she once silenced unruly audience members by merely pausing and looking at them imperiously.
She likewise performed in a 1992 episode of Dick Wolf’s “Law & Order” in which a Chinese-American high school science student is killed in a parable of racial injustice.
Yet showbiz casting agents quickly recognized that Harris’ voice had a droll quacking timbre that Hollywood had readily employed in animated films and commercial voiceovers, starting with the cartoon character Betty Boop, played by the Bronx-born Jewish actress, Mae Questel.
Harris brought passion to all her professional assignments; in one commercial she expressed fury that her macaroni was melting in the microwave oven because of an inferior brand of plastic ware. Her wailings almost attained the resonance of the Yiddish tragedienne Celia Adler in “Vu iz Mayn Kind?” (Where is My Child?) a 1937 tearjerker about an impoverished new emigrant to New York who is forced to abandon her baby at an orphanage.
By the time Estelle Harris’s career reached full steam, such challenges to Jews as indigence, pogroms, and endemic oppression were usually things of the past, left behind in the Old Country. So in the New World microaggressions became far more apt inspiration for comedy. And so Estelle Costanza ranted because her son was a schmegege.
The ethnic specificity of her performance as a nightmare disdainful Jewish mother paradoxically made her character universal, resonating with viewers from diverse backgrounds. Harris told one interviewer that all fans who stopped her in the street declared: “I love you, you’re just like my mother” whether “Asian, African-American, Italians, Jews, Catholics, Buddhas (sic), everybody.” Harris added: “So I’m glad that I portray the normal or abnormal mother.”
At least in “Seinfeld,” Estelle Costanza was fully aware that her son was a zhlub. Other Jewish mothers she played, like Mrs. Lipsky in “Kim Possible” and Mrs. Duckstein in “Queer Duck,” mistakenly believed that their sons were a radio talk show doctor and heterosexual, when in fact they were a supervillain and gay man, respectively.
Reaching a certain degree of self-awareness in comic roles allowed her to expound with analytical authority, like a jesting version of Anna Freud. In an interview with fellow voice actor [Wallace Shawn] (https://www.amazon.com/My-Dinner-Andre-Wallace-Shawn/dp/0802130631/?tag=thefor03-20) about “Toy Story 3D,” she observed that he “carried” his neuroses “inside” like all actors.
Harris managed to acquire further expertise in relative flops, as when she acted alongside another behemoth of American Jewish screen comedy, Walter Matthau, in “Out to Sea” (1997) and “The Odd Couple II” (1998). So ironclad was her professionalism that she even emerged unscathed from a debacle like “Chairman of the Board (1998),” the screen debut and farewell of the standup comedian Carrot Top. As a greedy landlady, Ms. Krubavitch, she was asked to draw comic effect from speaking by holding an artificial voice box against her throat.
Happily, Estelle Harris will be remembered for much droller and captivating roles, which allowed her personal voice and Jewish heritage to blend to the delight of millions.