Happy Birthday, Mrs. Costanza!
The double doors of the makeshift media room in Toronto’s Hazelton Hotel swung open, and before I could dig my recorder out of my bag Estelle Harris entered among a chorus of laughter from her son, Glen, and assorted entourage.
“She’s had us in stitches all day,” one of the organizers of the event told me.
That’s not surprising, given Harris’ best-known role as Mrs. Estelle Costanza on the hit sitcom Seinfeld. The role is so iconic, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine her as anyone but the beleaguered New York housewife.As I escorted her to her chair, I explained I’d be interviewing her for Zoomer, a baby boomer-focused magazine.
“Boomers? What do I know about baby boomers?” Harris retorted in the comically loud, cutting tone once reserved for her television husband Frank and son George.
“You gave birth to three of them,” Glen pointed out from across the room.
Even at 84 years old – today marks that milestone, in fact – Harris exudes an enthusiasm and energy for her craft that rivals any young actor entranced by the Hollywood life.
“I could work for 24 hours a day for three weeks in a row and be happy,” she exclaimed with such excitement I don’t doubt for a second it’s true. “I’d rather work than eat. Now that’s saying something.”
Enjoying life and the obligatory Seinfeld questions
MIKE CRISOLAGO: A lot of people are excited to hear what you’ve been up to.
ESTELLE HARRIS: My life is pretty good. The older I get the more I’m enjoying life – if the kids will let me. But I try to ignore any aggravation that I get from them, and life is good. I do a lot of voice-overs. I’m doing more stuff with Toy Story 3 and I’ve been a guest on a lot of shows so I’m keeping busy.
MC: So your career brings you the most enjoyment?
EH: Yes, and my children. And my grandchildren. I have three grandsons so it’s just wonderful. And I have nice friends. And my dogs. Oh, they’re wonderful!
MC: May I ask you the obligatory Seinfeld questions?
EH: Please. Of course.
MC: First, because I know you’ve been married to the same man for over 50 years-.
EH: Much too long!
MC: Well, that’s the idea you get from Frank and Estelle Costanza.
EH: Oh no, our marriage is not that bad. [Laughs]
MC: Did you bring any of your experiences as a wife and mother to the character?
EH: Absolutely not because she was frustrated. She lived in the same awful apartment with the same awful furniture for all those years. And she was not mad about her husband and she had one son, who was a loser. So if I played her, as I should for a drama, everybody in the audience would cry. [Laughs] But I didn’t. And I enjoyed doing the role. I just loved it. I loved the writing. I loved the direction. I loved everything about it and I was sorry that they stopped in the ninth year.
MC: When you play someone’s wife or mother on television for so long, you must develop a unique bond with those actors.
EH: Oh, yes. Whenever we see each other, ships that pass in the night, we hug and kiss and ask what’s happening and what are you doing? Oh yes. Lovely, lovely.
MC: That role has sort of followed you around ever since the show wrapped.
EH: Well, we have a whole new generation with the young people now who were too young to understand it and now they’re watching it and loving it. Because the writing was so wonderful! And it was the correct cast.
MC: Is there ever any frustration when you’ve had such a long career and people look at you and say, “It’s George’s mom!”?
EH: Not anymore. Recently somebody came up to me and listed all the things I’ve done that I even forgot about. And I get fan mail. I did The Suite Life of Zack and Cody and they recognized me from that, too. You know, I’ve done a lot, but I want to do more. I never did enough to fill me and say I’m tired of it. Never.
The role she always wanted and the role she loved the most
MC: What character have you always wanted to play?
EH: A madam. I’ve always wanted to do it like in the Old West. I wanted to be a madam, with my girls, giving them advice and everything. I’ve wanted badly to do it and I’ve never done that.
MC: As far as the roles you have played, which one do you cherish having done?
EH: Come Back Little Sheba [an early 1970’s Long Island theatre production]. I played Lola. That’s my very favourite because I felt so sorry for her. I loved her so much.
MC: At the last Oscar ceremony, Christopher Plummer, at 82, won an Academy Award playing a homosexual widower. Are strong, deep roles like that available to women as they get older?
EH: Very few. It’s mostly men.
MC: And why is that?
EH: I think because the writers are mostly men. And they do wonderful things for men’s roles and not necessarily for women. Unless they’re taking it from a book or a play and that role is already established.
Why she’ll never divorce and the perks of being her grandchild
MC: As we mentioned before, you’ve been married for over 50 years to your husband. Especially for Hollywood, that’s quite an accomplishment. What was your secret for making it last?
EH: Well, we had three children and I was on the road pretty much and he took care of them. And I was grateful because of that. And we became friends. Fighting friends, but friends -. Besides, if we got a divorce, I’d have to give him half of everything in California and if you think I’m giving him half of anything, you’re nuts!
MC: Raising children while on the road must have been difficult.
EH: I think so, and I feel guilty about that. But I couldn’t help it. I had to do what I had to do. I don’t let it bother me because I paid for their colleges – no loans, you know. So you give a little and you take a little.
MC: How have you enjoyed the experience of being a grandmother?
EH: It’s wonderful. But they live in New Jersey, so the only time I see them is when they come out to L.A. or Palm Springs. But we talk on the phone and I’m very close with my grandsons.
MC: Do you get to do all the “grandmotherly” things like spoiling them when they’re around?
EH: Not really. We’re just good friends. And they like to know about my career. And sometimes they use my career. (They ask) teachers “Do you know who my grandmother is?” And, boy, do they get special attention because of that. [Laughs] But they don’t take advantage of it. My youngest is 16 and the oldest is 25 – he’s getting married. So I’m going to have a granddaughter-in-law.
MC: Are you hoping, then, for a great-grandchild?
EH: Only when they’re ready. I don’t think that anybody should have children unless they really want them at the time. It’s unfair to them and to the child.
MC: You may be the first grandmother in history to tell their married grandson not to rush into procreating.
EH: Well, they shouldn’t. We all have one life to live. Let us live it.
MC: You mentioned Toy Story and Zach and Cody. Could you have imagined years ago that you’d still be working and reaching a whole new generation?
EH: No, but I felt it because I would go to the movies and see every movie. That was what I did with my allowance. I remembered everything and I said to myself, “Maybe you’ll be lucky. Maybe.” – So I guess I didn’t believe that it would happen, but I hoped it would.
On her hobbies and staying young
MC: What do you do to enjoy life when you’re not working?
EH: I like to play Blackjack in Palm Springs because we have a little shack (there). The dogs like it and we like it. I have friends and we go out to dinner. [Asks her son] Do I have any other hobbies? My darling dogs. And reading!
MC: Anything you’d recommend?
EH: The Constant Nymph. That’s a book that was made into a movie years ago and -.Glen has a friend who found the book and bought it for me. And I’m not starting it until I have the time because it was a wonderful movie.
MC: What secrets can you offer to our readers as far as staying young and active?
EH: Well, because I was lucky enough tot have a career to stay young and happy, just find something that you love to do and do it! And eat correctly. And exercise a little. [Laughs]
In parting –
“I wish you the very best in everything you do,” Harris said to me as we went our separate ways.
Such a funny, vibrant, intelligent and kind woman, I thought as I left the hotel. In other words, nothing at all like Mrs. Costanza.
Iams Senior Plus
Estelle Harris was in Toronto promoting Iams Senior Plus Pet Food.
“Iams Senior Plus helps (my dogs) to play young and stay young. And they’re more active. And they seem happier. And it seems like they’re going to live longer,” Harris said. “I think if it’s good for my dogs, it’s good for every dog, especially seniors.”