A farewell to Estelle Harris, former Tarentum resident and Ashkenazi sex symbol | Screen | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A farewell to Estelle Harris, former Tarentum resident and Ashkenazi sex symbol


click to enlarge A farewell to Estelle Harris, former Tarentum resident and Ashkenazi sex symbol (2)
CP Illustration: Lucy Chen
Estelle Harris, a former Tarentum resident and an actress and comedian most famous for her role as George Costanza’s mother on Seinfeld, died last week at 93. Obituaries have focused on her skill at “play[ing] the shrill and unhinged,” and the way she, as Estelle Costanza, found “universal” resonance through the particularity of her portrayal of an angry, miserable Jewish mother (who was certainly Jewish, even if the producers of Seinfeld were reluctant to tell it like it is. In a 1994 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Harris recalled asking the show’s co-creator Larry David, “What are we, Jewish?” to which she said David responded, “What do you care?”).

That no obituary I’ve read thus far, even those among the more thoughtful, has mentioned the way most of her performances, especially in sitcoms, absolutely oozed sexuality is a disservice to the zaftig Ashkenazi sex symbol — or, at least, she was always a sex symbol to me. For much of my life, I have had a dearth of present and attentive older Jewish women to relate to (not to mention knowing a single one with a healthy, active sex life), and I felt a spark of recognition at Estelle as someone I could one day be like.

Harris, who was born in Manhattan in 1928, grew up in Western Pennsylvania in Tarentum. Her aunt and uncle owned Star Confectionary and asked her parents, who also ran a candy store, to move to Pennsylvania to help with their store. It was in Tarentum where Harris had her first exposure to antisemitism and learned to love performing. She graduated from Tarentum High School in 1945.

I first saw Harris on the Disney Channel’s Suite Life of Zack and Cody, a mid-2000s sitcom with Eloise at the Plaza vibes where two rambunctious identical preteens moved into a luxury hotel where their mother performed as a lounge singer. Harris played Muriel, an unenthusiastic, elderly maid “working” at the hotel who was easily bribed by the children to participate in their various schemes. Her catchphrase was, “I’m not cleaning that up.”

I could tell I was supposed to mock her behaviors — the way she minced delicately from place to place, stored money in her bosoms, and cracked jokes about dating stalkers and ex-felons — because of her age; she was in her 70s at the time. But it just never landed with me. I thought she was funny and cool, and I loved her character’s implicit anti-work politics.

Even though she toned it way down for Disney, Muriel mirrored characters from throughout Harris’ television career, in which she was quickly typecast as a horny older woman. Harris made her first appearance on a TV show in 1985 at age 57 on Night Court, playing a sex worker named Easy Mary.

Sometimes, as was occasionally true of her role on Suite Life, she was the butt of a joke to the effect of, “Can you imagine being attracted to such an old woman?” In her 1987 appearance in season one of Married… with Children, she played one of Luke’s customers at the shoe store; we first saw Luke slow-dancing with her in the middle of the store to demonstrate that “you can dance in these shoes.” Although he was clearly attempting to seduce her into buying the shoes, the laugh track indicated the joke was on her for buying the line.

Luke said to Al, as an aside, by way of explanation, “You work on commission, you go the extra mile. And that [nodding to Estelle], my friend, is the extra mile.” When she left, he crowed, “She must’ve been something 1,500 years ago.”

But more often, she mined her sexuality for jokes premised on her unapologetic desire, like in her 1997 appearance as Esther Brooks in season four of Living Single, one of her many one-episode arc roles on 1990s Black sitcoms. She played the group’s landlord (and Overton’s boss) from “Back in the Day.”

She walked in on Overton at work in her building’s lobby, facing away and shaking his hips to the rhythm of his vigorous sanding. As soon as she entered, Harris’ whole body snapped into sync with Overton’s movements.

She ogled him. “You’re doing such a great job fixing my building,” she said, “I could just give you a deep, long, lingering kiss.” When Overton responded that that would be inappropriate, “You’re right,” she quipped, “let’s just have sex.”

“Kidding, just kidding,” Harris quickly noted before going for it two more times. “There I go again. I’m such a bad girl.”

Of course, the differences between them, especially with regard to age, were part of the joke, but the audience’s response of scattered, startled laughter gave way to hoots of approval from what sounds like several women. It’s as though they were saying, “Who could blame her for coming onto Obie-era John Henton?”

Throughout the 1990s, while she had several one-episode appearances on many different sitcoms and animated shows and a short run on the Shelley Long vehicle Good Advice, she also played her most enduring role as Estelle Costanza on Seinfeld.

The world of Seinfeld was a narrow one for women. Elaine was permitted to develop as a character because she was “one of the guys,” and Liz Sheridan’s shtick as Jerry’s mom, Helen Seinfeld, was to be so painfully self-effacing as to reduce herself to a ball of her anxieties. By comparison, Harris’ Estelle Costanza was, far and away, the most interesting woman on the show.

For me, Harris’ best moments on Seinfeld were those when she let fly Estelle Costanza’s anger and misery. The way she went from 0 to 100 in one second, shrieking, “I HAVE NO EYE FOR FASHION?!?” at Jerry Stiller’s Frank Costanza in this scene, and how quickly George calling home to announce his engagement devolved into yelling in the first episode of season seven.

But she also glowed in season six when she finally got her own subplot involving her separation from Frank and her desire to start dating again. Unlike Jerry’s mother and any other older woman character who made an appearance on the show (with the possible exception of Babs, Kramer’s mom), not only did Estelle Costanza consider herself a sexual being, but she actually got to be one.

In season six, after separating from her husband Frank, she got an eye lift, because she was “out there” in the dating world. Kramer drove her home from the procedure in his car, newly outfitted with someone else’s vanity plates that the state mistakenly issued to him that say “ASSMAN.” As other drivers honked at him and called out greetings to “the Assman,” Estelle, who presumably didn’t see the car’s license plate due to her eye-related surgery, heard this and thought the other men were congratulating Kramer for pulling her.

“Boy, I never dreamed it could make such a difference,” she crowed as she primped in the visor mirror. Then, when Kramer hit a pothole, he instinctively shot his right arm out across Estelle’s body to keep her from hurting herself. She thought he was making a pass at her. “He stopped short and made a grab,” she bragged to her husband a few scenes later.

Remarkably, the possibility of Kramer hitting on Estelle remained plausible, at least to Frank, who two episodes earlier blew a business deal when the man he was meeting with asked if he could go out with Estelle, calling her a “beautiful woman,” which unfortunately prompted a few giggles from the audience.

Researching this essay, I came across an interview where Harris said that, essentially, the problem with Estelle Costanza is that she didn’t get enough love from her husband or son.

"I'm not that different from Estelle Costanza," Harris said in a far-from-shrill voice. "I understand her frustrations. She needs to break away from her husband. She would be much happier doing her own thing. She doesn't need therapy. She needs more love from George and her husband. Then she'd be a perfectly delightful and delighted human being."

And love, to Harris, was a profound force. In the same profile, she explained how it is she got into acting. "I got loved," she said. "That's what started it.”

Wherever you are, Estelle, I hope there’s lots of love.