Mrs. Costanza on ‘Seinfeld’ Was 93 – The Hollywood Reporter

Estelle Harris, the New York actress with the unforgettable shriek who hilariously nagged her son (played by Jason Alexander) and husband (Jerry Stiller) on Seinfeld, has died. She was 93.

Harris, who left a legacy of voiceover work, including a memorable turn as the overbearing Mrs. Potato Head (the wife of Don Rickles‘Mr. Potato Head) in Pixar’s Toy Story franchise, died Saturday at home in Palm Desert, California, of natural causes, her son Glen Harris told The Hollywood Reporter. She was to turn 94 later this month.

Harris also played Aunt Harriet in Nora Ephron’s debut managerial This Is My Life (1992), opposite Julie Kavnerand appeared opposite Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in two films: in Out to Sea (1997), as an acerbic cruise-ship guest, and in The Odd Couple II (1998), as a flirtatious older woman.

The 5-foot-3 actress also endeared herself to the younger crowd with a recurring role as Muriel, the lazy maid at The Tipton Hotel, on the 2005-08 Disney Channel series The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.

Though she held a lifelong interest in performing, Harris did not begin her professional career until later in life, making her screen debut in a small role in Looking Up (1977) when she was approaching 50. She worked steadily in bit roles until she was cast as Estelle Costanza on the fourth season of Seinfeld, making her a fan favorite. (She noted that the character was named Estelle before she auditioned.)

Having never watched the show before her tryout, Harris first appeared as Mrs. Costanza on the infamous fourth-season Seinfeld episode “The Contest.” She ends up in the hospital after catching George masturbating, which leads the four main characters to make a bet as to who can go without the longest. At her initial audition, Harris said she was shocked when she realized the meaning of the euphemisms in the script.

With her characteristic screech that raised her scenes to an operatic pitch, Harris became known for her sarcastic remarks and exasperated tirades at the expense of her son, George, and husband, Frank. She appeared in 27 episodes of Seinfeld from 1992-98.

Harris said in 2012 that she loved the character from the start but couldn’t find anyone in her own life on which to base her. “Nobody had a past like that!” she noted. “I mean, that poor woman. She lived in that apartment that they got married in with the same furniture and the same husband and one son that was a loser. I mean, she had everything bad! I thought it was funny.”

Despite that voice, which could be annoying or shrill, Harris could bring a distinct warmth and charm to her roles.

She could be heard as Timons mother on the tiller & Pumbaa TV series; as Lula, the enchanted talking sword, on Dave the Barbarian; ace Drakken’s mother on Kim Possible; as the neurotic chicken Audrey on Disney’s Home on the Range (2004); and as Death’s Mother on Fox’s family guy (1999).

She was born Estelle Nussbaum in New York City to candy-store owners Isaac and Anna Nussbaum. After falling in love with performing in high school, Harris became a full-time mother and homemaker, but she squeezed in work in dinner theater and on TV spots whenever she could. (She said she once did 27 national commercials in one year alone).

Living on Long Island with her husband, Sy Harris, she raised three children before determining to make a living as an actor. An agent discovered her in a local production of Come Back, Little Sheba in the role of Lola (the part for which Shirley Booth won an Oscar in 1953), leading to steady theatrical work.

Harris made it to the big screen in 1977, winning small roles in Looking Up and summer dog. Next, she appeared as an unfeeling mother in Sergio Leone’s epic gangster film Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

At the prompting of one of her sons, who had freelanced as a publicist, Harris made the jump to the sitcom world in 1985, securing a three-episode arc on NBC’s Night Court as a kindly hooker named Sweet Mary.

In 1992, Harris portrayed a nagging mother on NBC’s Mad About Youwhich would presage her role on Seinfeld. She joined the rest of the Seinfeld cast on a 2009 episode of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasmwhere the plot revolved around a meeting for the TV show.

She made her debut as Mrs. Potato head in Toy Story 2 (1999), a role she reprized in the following two sequels and in several short films.

Harris was a spokesperson for Iams Senior Food Plus pet food for dogs and cats, an extension of her lifelong love of animals.

She married Sy in 1953, and they had two sons, Eric and Glen, and a daughter, Taryn.

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