Alexander the Great
In case you didn't know, Jason Alexander was in Tucson last weekend.
He was here to teach a master acting class to advanced theater students, and as an added bonus, Alexander agreed to do a little show at Centennial Hall, which turned out to be anything but little.
What this meant was that as I went to meet him for a little chat in the Theater Arts building, there were a number of starstruck students milling about outside, buzzing with the word that George from Seinfeld was inside.
Of course, in his 20 years as an actor and performer, Alexander has accomplished a lot more than just the portrayal of George Costanza, although that may be what most people know him for.
As he would reveal on stage at Centennial that evening, though, he has led a long and interesting life, finding solace in everything from magic to music to the mysteries of the circus geek.
As of that afternoon, however, Alexander seemed unsure of exactly what his sold-out performance would entail. When asked to talk a little bit about what was in store for the UA crowd, he laughed and replied, "I would if I knew anything about it."
"I don't have an act," Alexander elaborated. "A lot of people think because of the connection with Jerry that I did standup at some point, which I never did. I have on occasion done some special musical things, like the Boston Pops show that's still running on public television. So, usually what I do is this master class thing and sometimes they make a public event out of it, and on occasion I have enough little cute stories and enough little odds and ends that if the organization is good enough, or is something I care about, I can get up there and kind of wing it."
The organization in question this time around was the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation, a group dedicated to enhancing the experiences of the Jewish community in Tucson, both on and off campus.
"I do the master class thing all over the country, usually at the universities, and they said as long as you're coming, would you do a thing for us, and the thing kind of grew, so now it's really a big thing, but we'll see what it is."
As to whether Hillel and related causes are something Alexander donates a lot of time to, he explained, "I've become one of the spokesmen for the Anti-Defamation League. I got involved with them right after the Gulf War, they kind of sponsored a trip that I went on to Israel, and it was kind of a profound trip because, you know, Jew was stamped all over me, but I had not really pursued any sort of Jewish cultural or spiritual activity [before]. I went on that trip and really was reawakened to identity and whatnot. So because I do stuff for ADL, a lot of Jewish organizations have me on the mailing list. Most of the time I say no [to their requests], if for no other reason than that it just kind of dilutes the message if you're speaking for every organization."
This time, however, Alexander couldn't say no, and the result was the packed audience in Centennial Hall Sunday night, which was treated to a truly eclectic and captivating experience that wasn't so much of a show as a kind of inspired conversation.
Over the course of his time on stage, Alexander shared his entire life story, from his days as a chubby kid who relied on comedy to save his skin, to his early acting experiences, to the events which shaped his life. He performed an impromptu song to start with, did a magic trick and even unleashed a little bit that would be at home in the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, which apparently involved shoving a hatpin through his forearm.
He talked about the highs and lows of his career ("Suddenly I was the scumbag who tried to rape Julia Roberts, America's sweetheart," he commented on "Pretty Woman"), including the early struggles of Seinfeld and the, um, appearance of "little Jason" in "Love! Valor! Compassion!"
Earlier that day, I had asked Jason what it was like to suddenly find himself free, with the show's nine-year run finally at an end.
"It was interesting. It took me back to my younger days when that was how we lived. Even if you had a Broadway gig, no one knew if it was going to run, so you'd sign a year contract, but you knew it could be a one-month deal. It's actually kind of exciting. You know, there was something wonderful about starting a family during Seinfeld because it had real stability, and I knew I would be there for important stuff. But I guess actors sort of crave a slightly more spontaneous lifestyle, and that's part of the reason why after nine years, under no duress, we decided to kind of put it to bed."
And don't get your hopes up for any Seinfeld-related projects any time soon, either. Possibilities were tossed around, but nothing really came from them.
"I thought of a couple of spinoff ideas," said Alexander, "but the only main character I thought might have a shot would be Kramer, if you did like a Kramer and Newman thing, but it would be a very different show. It would be sort of a physical comedy show, you know, wild humor.
"I also thought you could have put the two sets of parents in some sort of retirement village in Florida and based a show off of that, but for the most part, [the four primary members of the Seinfeld cast] only exist with each other, and if you take one of them away, the dynamic of what made it funny and interesting, I think, just goes with it."
Speaking of the parents, I finally had my chance to settle a question that had been nagging at me for years. While my friends remained convinced that Jerry Stiller had always portrayed the elder Mr. Costanza, I was certain there had been another actor to play the part before him. Finally, the truth is revealed, as well as the source of the confusion.
"There were actually three [actors]," revealed Alexander, in an almost conspiratorial tone. "The first one was an actor that I did a Broadway show with, named John Randolph, and John's biggest problem was that he looked too old. He looked more like my grandfather than my father. Then another actor came in temporarily who I can't remember, didn't make much of an impression... My mother was cast, Estelle was cast in the masturbation show, and that became a big character. The father never made an appearance in that show, and when they wanted to bring her back, they suddenly needed a father. And somebody got the idea of Stiller, and the two of them were heaven. And then Stiller and I found this very funny relationship really quickly and it worked."
And here's the secret: "This is how pervasive it was," Alexander admitted. "They went to an episode where they used a different actor, and reshot the scenes with Jerry so that in syndication, it would always appear that he played the father."
One can only guess at what other mysteries lie behind the Seinfeld empire.
But, on to other things.
"I'm starting a rather large film tomorrow," said Jason, unable to suppress a smile. "Don't laugh: 'Rocky and Bullwinkle.' I am Boris Badenov, master villain, working with DeNiro and Renee Russo, and an animated moose and squirrel."
There's lots more in the works, too: "About three years ago I started a production company because historically when actors finish a long running series, they kind of disappear for a while," he said, "and anticipating that that could happen, I started to develop a directing career, a producing career. I have an office with Universal, and we develop stuff for them, so we've done a couple of pilots for them; we have about three or four films in development. I spent last summer directing a feature, which should be out next fall. So there's lots of stuff happening, but it's not the life I was used to, where for nine years I had a nine to five job."
But what of the past? After all Seinfeld was not only great TV show that Jason Alexander worked on. There was another, that was unfortunately overlooked by too many.
"Duckman died a tragic death," Alexander lamented when I raised the topic of the extremely offbeat animated show. "It just became a show that got too expensive to do, and it was on a tiny little network (USA). I don't know why other networks haven't picked it up. I thought it was a terrific show. It was a South Park precursor, that's for sure.
"Duckman actually took its wear and tear on my voice," he added, looking on the brighter side of the show's end. "It was a lot of yelling and a lot of histrionics and that was tough."
So, of course, was Seinfeld.
"I think that's how they made the connection," he reflected. "They said, 'Boy, he yells there, maybe he could yell here.'"
And yell he did, as he entertained, and continues to entertain fans around the world. But does this often softspoken man with so many credits to his long career suffer the fate of being confused with his most well-known character by the man on the street?
"I think most of the people - most of the people - that really enjoy my character on Seinfeld are smart enough to know that there was probably a certain distance between me and the character, so I don't think they're terribly disappointed," Jason remarked as he headed downstairs to the group of students anxiously awaiting his wisdom at the afternoon master class.
Not everyone is so with it, though.
"The Kramer fans," he added, shaking his head, "they come up and they go, 'Hey, where's Kramer?' and I go, 'I don't know. They're not real.'"