By People Staff
May 14, 1998 12:00 PM

Imagine, just for a moment, a kinder, gentler Seinfeld. Don’t laugh, it almost happened. When veteran actor and comic Jerry Stiller was first called in to play George’s father in 1993, he was told, he says, to portray Frank Costanza as “a soft-spoken, withdrawn type of guy.” No problem—until he met his TV wife, Estelle Harris. She, it turns out, was told to scream like a banshee. In a face-off like that, says Stiller, 70, he feared his character “would fall into the sand and disintegrate—there would be nothing left.” So when filming began and Harris yelled at him, he decided to yell back—and the audience loved it. “If the people laugh,” says Stiller, “you walk away saying, ‘Gee, we must have done something right.’ ”

No doubt about it. Over the last five years, Frank and Estelle Costanza continued to give as good as they got—and their screaming matches turned them into two of Seinfeld’s most popular recurring characters. Stiller is often greeted on the streets of Manhattan—where he lives with wife Anne Meara, his longtime comedy partner—with cries of “Serenity now!” and “Happy Festivus!” Harris, 62, a stage actress who raised three children before moving on to film and TV roles in the late ’70s, gets a similar reaction around Los Angeles, her home base. “Wherever I go, all kinds of young people yell at me, ‘Oh, you’re just like my mother!’ They’re Jewish, they’re Irish, they’re Asian, they’re black—and I’m like all their mothers,” she says. She gives credit to Larry David for the achievement. “He had us cooking paella once, then kasha, a Russian and Jewish dish. This way everyone can relate to us.”

Somewhat more understated are the fictional Seinfelds (but don’t try to get the Del Boca Vista condo board to second that). Still, Liz Sheridan, 69, a veteran of such sitcoms as ALF and Empty Nest, knows that playing Helen Seinfeld was a unique experience. “When I got to work on the first day,” she recalls, “Jerry had put roses in my room with a nice card. I thought that was lovely.” During tapings, she adds, “everyone hugs and kisses. It’s a big family.” Barney Martin, 70, an ex-police officer who has appeared in films since the ’60s, agrees. Playing Morty Seinfeld, he says, “was such a pleasure. The atmosphere on the set is supreme joy. You woke up in the morning, and you wanted to go to work.” After filming the final episode, he jokes, “I kissed Jerry on the lips.”

Not everyone has such affection for the show—or its star. Actor Phil Bruns, who played Morty Seinfeld for one episode (1990’s “The Stake Out”), was unceremoniously dumped, he says, when producers told him they wanted someone “more ethnic.” The real reason, he suggests, was that he was “funnier than the star.” John Randolph, on the other hand, remembers his one-episode stint as Frank Costanza (in 1993’s “The Handicap Spot”) more fondly. “They were testing different people,” he says. “It was just a gamble, but it was fun.”

As for Seinfeld’s, end, all four parental mainstays are uncharacteristically somber. “I had to huff and puff to keep up with them,” says an admiring Stiller of Seinfeld, Alexander, Richards and Louis-Dreyfus. “I still haven’t come to terms that this is over.” Harris was “a little disappointed,” she says, when Seinfeld called it quits, but, she adds, “life goes on.” Indeed: She is busy lending her distinctively shrill voice to the upcoming Toy Story sequel, while Stiller—the father of actor Ben Stiller—just finished filming A Fish in a Bathtub, a comedy with Meara. Sheridan is writing a book about her 1952 affair with James Dean, and Martin says he is “looking at offers” for sitcom parts. But Alexander has another idea, at least for his TV mom and pop: “The greatest thing that could happen,” he says, “is if somebody got smart enough to do a spinoff of the Costanzas.” Unlikely? Maybe, but Stiller isn’t taking any chances. “Frank Costanza,” he jokes, “is not going to be licking any envelopes.”