He’s best known, of course, for his hilarious portrayal of the archetypal nebbish George Costanza on the iconic TV comedy “Seinfeld.” But Jason Alexander is also an accomplished musical theater actor, director, magician and a professional poker player to boot.
A native of Newark, N.J., the 58-year-old Alexander – born Jay Scott Greenspan — recently spoke with Jmore about his life and career, his Jewish identity and what it meant to play George.
Jmore: What can people expect from your show at Beth Tfiloh?
Alexander: This show is the ‘Symphony Show’ without a symphony. I do about three different specialty programs, and this is the one they asked for. In a way, what it should feel like is going to someone’s living room and somebody gets up and says, “Hey, let’s sing songs around the piano.” Although with a little more flair than that.
Why do you do community performances like this one?
I was first and foremost a theater guy. When I moved out to Los Angeles and started getting more involved with film and television, I never wanted to lose my connection to live performance. But I also could not make the commitment to long theater runs. So I began these kinds of shows and I enjoy doing them. It is a nice way to meet people, and it is a nice way to visit cities I would not get to otherwise and get involved in organizations that I would not be aware of.
They are also asking me to do some sort of interaction later, like a Q&A, with the kids from the school, which is the kind of stuff I do almost everywhere I go. I love chatting with kids and hearing what’s on their minds, and trying to come up with quasi-intelligent answers for their very intelligent questions.
Describe your Jewish identity.
I always feel funny answering questions about my Jewish connection because … I think the first impression that people have of me is that I lead with Jew. I am so much a product of that New York Jewish community. The music of their voices, the rhythms of their sense of humor. All my relatives growing up were entrenched in that first-generation immigrant Jewish American. I was bar mitzvahed in a Conservative synagogue. You know, I lived a very Jewish life growing up.
Where it gets tricky for me is that a lot of Jewish organizations will book me to be a performer or speaker, and I have to eventually cop to the fact that I am not a big fan of religion. I do not like organized religion. I am very spiritual but I do not love religion, and that gets dicey when you are performing for a religious organization.
But I bridge that gap by talking about and acknowledging that the Jewish community and the Jewish religious community tend to do pretty fabulous things in the world, and that I love the idea of community. I do not judge people of faith and I do not judge people who value the trappings of religion. And as of my cultural Judaism, I love the values of it, I love the sense of humor of it, and I love the traditions of it, even though I am not a religious person.
On a totally different note, why do you think George Costanza resonated with people?
My only guess is that people felt they knew him. Everybody either saw themselves or saw somebody they cared about as a kind of a George, a guy who was just hapless in life. You know, who has talents and abilities and aspirations but, for whatever reason, is in his own way. George was a very fun, funny, embraceable version of those kinds of guys and gals. I think it was just the relatability. You know, people did not necessarily know a Kramer, and they actually did not necessarily know a Jerry, but I think a lot of people knew an Elaine and a George. I think that is probably a lot of the reason why those two characters have made a connectivity with the audience that is so profound.
Was it tough to play that sort of character?
Oh, it’s so much fun! You know, there are lots of schmucky, putzy characters that would not be a lot of fun to play because they are not necessarily good people. But I always felt George had a good heart. And the ways our writers found to explore that character was just so delicious.
That for me is the legacy of “Seinfeld.” When people go, “What was the best part about it?” it was not the success. It is not everything that it did for my life, although it did great things for my life. But I walked into a job for nine years, and every day I think was a joy. Every day was fun and funny. And I would go home with a check and I thought that eventually they are going to realize that this is a giant scam. There are lots of sort of putzy guys that I have played, but George stands out for the craft with which the creative team loaded me up, so that he is elevated above and beyond all the other guys like him that I might play.
There’s a lot of debate about whether George was Jewish or Italian.
Here is what I can confirm categorically: He’s fictional! [Laughs] I understand why people are confused because it’s an Italian name and it’s a very Jewishy-feeling family. What I tell people often is take a look at Garry Marshall and Penny Marshall. They are Italian. But if you ever saw two people that radiated Jew more than that, I would be hard pressed to find them. So Italians and Jews, the only way we can tell them apart is that one wears a crucifix and a horn and the other one wears a mezuzah and the Star of David. That’s how you know the difference. There are no real differences.
What else are you working on these days?
I have an episode of “Young Sheldon” that [aired] March 29. I have been doing a couple of episodes of “The Orville” that I am having a good time with, but you will never spot me [laughs]. Lots of development and lots of stuff that I am prepping as a director and producer and that kind of stuff, which is exactly where most of my career is spent these days. Lots of fun!
Ira Gewanter is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
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