IN THE LONG ISLAND SUBURB OF PORT Washington, N.Y., strangers do a double take when they see Estelle Harris. “At the supermarket,” says the actress, “they’ll come up and say, ‘Are you George’s mother?’ When I open my mouth, they know!”
Seinfeld fans do know—by her shriek alone—Estelle Costanza, the nagging, needling, nit-picking mother from hell. “What’s frightening about Estelle,” says her TV son Jason Alexander, “is that there are so many similarities between her and my mom. They’re both little ladies [Harris, in her early 60s, stands 5’3], they’re both redheads, and they both have this fervor for life.” Fervor? To Jerry Stiller, Harris’s TV husband, Frank, that’s an understatement. “We play our scenes like opera,” he says, “with bravado and screaming and hollering.”
Off-camera, says Alexander, Harris “is frisky, liberal and pretty hip. She’s not maternal in any other sense than she’s very loving.”
Her three children can attest to that. Eric, 38, is a social worker; Glen, 34, is a music promoter who doubles as his mother’s unofficial manager; and Taryn, 31, is a former Nassau County police officer retired on disability. Although she is proud of her kids, Harris admits that “being a mother of three was not my idea of heaven. I had to get out of diapers and bottles and blah-blah baby talk.” Acting in amateur groups provided an escape. “It’s been very good for her,” says her husband, Sy, a window-treatment salesman.
“I remember as a tiny child watching my mom act,” says Glen. “I realized how magical she was.” Years later, Glen put his mother on the path to stardom. In 1984, while freelancing as a publicist in Hollywood, he urged her to fly out and audition for TV and movies. Life in the fast lane was hazardous at first—literally. Glen remembers giving her directions to a Burbank studio. “You have to cross three lanes right away to get to the exit,” he says. “She entered the freeway and couldn’t get over. So she stopped. Everyone was screaming. But she held her ground until she could make it across. She’s a tough woman.”
Eventually, Harris’s persistence paid off. She began landing small parts in movies (Once Upon a Time in America) and sitcoms such as Night Court. Glen helped her prepare for the Seinfeld audition and, this time, drove her to the studio. Good thing, too, because the script was a little obscure to her. “She had this quizzical look,” he recalls. “Then I read it…. I was thinking, ‘Oh, my God! It’s about masturbation.’ She said, ‘Nooooo!’ ” The episode went on to win a 1992 Emmy.
The younger of two daughters of Isaac Nussbaum, a candy-store owner, and his wife, Anna, Harris grew up in Pennsylvania and Brooklyn. At Taren-tum High School outside Pittsburgh, “I would get whatever part I auditioned for,” she says, “but mostly funny parts, because I could make the audience get hysterical. I love to make people happy. They’re not going to remember you if you make them miserable, right?”
But she had to set her acting dreams on hold. In 1952, she met Sy at a dance; six months later they were married. Once her children started school, Harris tiptoed back into acting—first in amateur productions, then dinner theater and commercials.
Harris is happy in her work, but she grows somber talking about daughter Taryn. “She got a karate chop on the neck in the line of duty,” says Harris. “She has two disks leaning on a nerve, and the pain is bad…. If your child’s in pain, it’s murder.”
Now in the midst of moving to Florida, Harris is divesting her four-bedroom colonial house of 30 years’ worth of chairs, lamps and mirrors representing her second great passion: antiques. She still can’t pass up a garage sale. “I try to go incognito,” she says. “I go in big hats and I wear sunglasses. But people recognize me as if to say, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I tell them,” says Harris, her voice reaching a Costanzian crescendo, ” ‘Because I’m addicted!’ ”
MICHAEL A. LIPTON
CYNTHIA WANG in Port Washington