With her high-pitched voice and humorously overbearing attitude, the actor put a memorable stamp on the smash 1990s sitcom
As middle-class matron Estelle Costanza, Harris put a memorable stamp on her recurring role in the smash 1990s sitcom. With her high-pitched voice and humorously overbearing attitude, she was an archetype of maternal indignation.
Trading insults and absurdities with her on-screen husband, played by Jerry Stiller, Harris helped create a parental pair that would leave even a psychiatrist helpless to do anything but hope they’d move to Florida – as their son, played by Jason Alexander, fruitlessly encouraged them to do.
Viewers of all backgrounds would tell her she was just like their own mothers, Harris often said.
“She is the mother that everybody loves, even though she’s a pain in the neck,” she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1998.
The career-defining role came after decades on stage and screen. Born 22 April 1928, in New York City as Estelle Nussbaum, Harris grew up in the city and later in the Pittsburgh suburb of Tarentum, Pennsylvania, where her father owned a candy store. She started tapping her comedic talents in high school productions, where she realised she “could make the audience get hysterical,” as she told People magazine in 1995.
Harris gave up performing when she married in the early 1950s but resumed acting in amateur groups, dinner theatre and commercials as her three children grew (“I had to get out of diapers and bottles and blah-blah baby talk,” she told People). Eventually, she began appearing in guest roles on TV shows, including the legal comedy Night Court, and in films such as director Sergio Leone’s 1984 gangland epic Once Upon a Time in America.
Her Seinfeld debut came in one of the show’s most celebrated episodes: the Emmy Award-winning 1992 instalment “The Contest”, in which the four central characters challenge each other to refrain from doing what is artfully described only as “that”.
Harris appeared in 27 episodes of Seinfeld, which its characters called the “show about nothing”. She seethed over snubbed paella, screeched about George’s hanky-panky in the parental bed and laid out the spread for screen husband Frank’s idiosyncratic holiday, Festivus.
“Estelle is a born performer,” Stiller told the Record of Bergen County, in 1998. “I just go with what I got, and she goes back at me the same way.”
Still, Harris saw a sympathetic undertone to her character, often saying Estelle fumed out frustration at her bumbling mate and scheming slacker of a son.
Viewers, she told an interviewer in 1998, “just look at her as being funny, cute and a loudmouth. But it’s not how I play her. I play her with misery underneath.”
After the nine-season run of Seinfeld ended in 1998, Harris continued to appear on stage and screen. She voiced Mrs Potato Head in the 1999 animated blockbuster Toy Story 2 and played the recurring character Muriel in the popular Disney Channel sitcom The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, among other roles.
Her husband of almost 70 years, Sy Harris, died in 2021. Survivors include three children; three grandsons; and a great grandson.
Estelle Harris, actor, born 22 April 1928, died 2 April 2022
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