The Big Picture
- Estelle Harris, best known for voicing Mrs. Potato Head in Toy Story, made an immediate impact when she first appeared as Estelle Costanza on Seinfeld.
- Estelle Costanza is the perfect counter to George, showing the reason behind his neuroses. Her loud and melodramatic nature steals every scene she is in.
- The chemistry between Estelle and Frank Costanza, played by Jerry Stiller, is magic. They are among the most memorable TV parents, constantly bickering and creating hilarious moments.
Earlier this year, the world said goodbye to actress Estelle Harris. For the last two decades, audiences knew her best for voicing Mrs. Potato Head in the Toy Story franchise, but she will always be most remembered for her years on the ’90s NBC sitcom Seinfeld as George Costanza’s (Jason Alexander) shrill mother. Even though she didn’t first appear in the series until halfway through Season 4, she made an immediate impact that quickly cemented her place as one of the greatest TV characters of all time.
Estelle Costanza’s First Appearance on ‘Seinfeld’
We first meet Estelle Costanza in “The Contest.” It’s no accident that it’s also regarded as the show’s best and most popular episode. The plot centers around George being caught by his mother, literally with his pants down, doing a certain activity. The shock of it causes his mother to fall and hurt her back. When George goes to visit her in the hospital, Estelle makes her on-camera debut. We had heard her mentioned before, but this is the first time we get to see her — and it’s unforgettable.
Lying in a hospital bed, George sitting beside her completely humiliated and wishing to be anywhere else, Estelle admonishes her son in that now well-known high-pitched voice, “I go out for a quart of milk. I come home and find my son treating his body like it was an amusement park.” She ramps up, piling on, getting louder, as she would always do. “Too bad you can’t do that for a living. You’d be very successful at it! You could sell out Madison Square Garden! Thousands of people could watch you. You could be a BIG star!” The in-studio audience roared with laughter, and just like that, Estelle Costanza became not only one of the most iconic supporting members of Seinfeld‘s cast, but an integral part of the 90s pop culture landscape.
Estelle Is the Perfect Counter to George on ‘Seinfeld’
The character of Estelle Costanza was christened with the first name before Harris was even cast. It seems as if she was born to play the part. Estelle is the perfect counter to George, a way to show the reason behind his neuroses. Each scene between the two always devolves into a loud argument with George left on the verge of completely losing his mind. Estelle Costanza would show up in 27 episodes over the final six seasons of Seinfeld, stealing every scene she was in. As crazy and melodramatic as George was, she was even more so. Whatever laugh Alexander got for something outlandish his character did, Estelle would be there to top it. Something as simple as George and his new fiancé, Susan, calling the parents to share the big news becomes an even bigger moment due to Estelle’s reaction. When Susan tells her that she loves George very much, Estelle is dumbfounded. “Really? You do? May I ask why?”
As frustrated as she is by George, though, Estelle also loves him, and looks for any reason to be proud of him. When George becomes a hand model in Season 5’s “The Puffy Shirt,” one scene finds him sitting on his parents’ couch, giving himself a manicure, and Estelle beams with pride. “I always talk about your hands,” she says, “how they’re so soft and milky white.” She offers him Jell-O. It’s the biggest way she knows to show her love. When George’s father asks why she put bananas in the Jell-O, Estelle screams at the top of her lungs, “George likes the bananas!” Even when there is the slightest display of an emotionally healthy relationship, there is that easy cross-over into irrational and hilarious anger that transforms the scene.
Some of ‘Seinfeld’s Best Scenes Are Between Estelle and Frank Costanza
Somehow better than Estelle’s scenes with Alexander is the give and take between her and Jerry Stiller as George’s father Frank Costanza. The chemistry between the two is magic, making them among the most memorable TV parents. If anyone is as ridiculous as Estelle, it’s Frank. Estelle may be loud and obnoxious, but Frank is just as loud and harder to deal with. Where we get hints that there is a semi-normal person under Estelle’s brash exterior, Frank is simply nuts. The pair bicker incessantly. A simple conversation can blow up into a yelling match. When Estelle wants to change tables at the diner because it’s cold, Frank bellows, “I didn’t take the subway all the way to New York to sit at a table like that!” Estelle comes unglued: “I didn’t take the subway to be in a drafty restaurant!” Sadly, for George, most of these interactions happen right in front of him. The pained expression on his face explains everything, and we even sympathize with his plight.
A perfect example of their interplay can be found in Season 6 when Estelle and Frank separate. Deciding that she’s now back on the market, Estelle gets an eye job in “The Fusilli Jerry.” Kramer picks her up after, then puts his arm on her chest when he’s forced to slam on his brakes. Estelle takes it to mean that the surgery was a success if her son’s friend is already hitting on her. When she and Frank later get into a fight about the procedure, she can’t help but tell him, “Well, it’s already working. Kramer made a pass at me.” She goes on to say, “He stopped short and made a grab.” Frank rages, maybe because Kramer stole his move, but also that someone would hit on his wife. Despite always being at odds, the two love each other.
Estelle works best not playing against Frank, but with him, for what’s better than one loud, nonsensical maniac than two? They come together to ground George for having sex in their bed, with Estelle screaming, “Where am I going to sleep?! I can’t sleep in there! I CAN’T! I CAN’T!” When the Costanzas meet Susan’s parents in Season 7’s “The Rye,” they’re apoplectic that George’s soon-to-be in-laws didn’t serve cake. Frank is livid. When George tells them it’s not a big deal, Estelle sticks up for her husband. “Your father is absolutely right. We’re sitting there like idiots drinking coffee without a piece of cake!”
The last we see of Estelle Costanza is in Seinfeld’s final episode, simply titled “The Finale.” After the Seinfeld Four finally does something heinous enough to land themselves in trouble with the law, Estelle has a short serious moment, an extreme rarity for the show. “Poor Georgie. Was it our fault this happened to him?” she asks Frank. “Did we do something wrong? Maybe it was our fault.”
The answer is undoubtedly yes. Estelle Costanza seriously messed up her son, and, in doing so in such a spectacular and hilarious fashion, turned a supporting character into one of television’s most beloved. The show about nothing turned out to truly be something, and much of that has to do with Harris as Estelle. Her loud, over-the-top brand of straight-faced comedy was the highlight of every scene she was in. Her legacy will live on forever.