Star of stage, screen and Seinfeld, Fort Lauderdale film fest honoree Jason Alexander has created – and sustained – a multifaceted career. And he does not live with his mom.
By Elizabeth Rahe
Overheard at a party: “Jason Alexander has kids? I thought he’d still be living with his mom.”
Alexander’s serially unemployed, relationship-challenged character, George Costanza, from the iconic ’90s sitcom Seinfeld may, indeed, still be living with his mom.
Alexander, on the other hand, does not live with his mother, Ruth Greenspan – who, by the way, resides in Coconut Creek. Her son makes his home in Los Angeles with his wife of 32 years, artist Daena Title. Raised with the work ethic “don’t just sit,” he has been serially employed throughout his career, not only as an actor, but also as a director, singer, writer, comedian and producer. His current projects include singing with symphony orchestras and performing a one-man comedy/variety show, An Evening with Jason Alexander and His Hair.
“On any given day I don’t know where I am or what show I’m doing,” Alexander says by phone from Boston. He has just taught a theater master class at his alma mater, Boston University, and the following day he travels to Louisville for an evening with that city’s orchestra. “My head is spinning, and I hope I go out there and do the right show.”
His eclectic career is the reason his November itinerary includes South Florida, familiar territory to Mrs. Greenpan’s son. The Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, Nov. 7-23, will celebrate Alexander’s accomplishments with the Career Achievement Award on opening night (Nov. 7). He stars with an ensemble cast in the 2014 musical farce Lucky Stiff, which will be screened during the evening at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts Amaturo Theater. He expects to be accompanied by his mom.
“If you see a very cute, fake redhead on my arm, that’s Mother … 95 in February and still going strong.”
Despite his mother’s longevity – which by comparison would put Alexander, 55, squarely in middle age – he observes: “I’m starting to get lifetime achievement awards. I’m now ancient.”
That he and his wife recently became empty-nesters may have amplified the sentiment. Their younger son, Noah, is in his first semester at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. Older son, Gabe, who studied theater arts at Yale University, graduated in May.
Upon learning the FLiFF award is actually for career achievement, Alexander expresses relief.
“Career, career – thank God,” he says. “Truly, the biggest career achievement is sustaining one. I tell students this all the time – you can only work on, as an artist, being good. There is no formula for being successful. The award should be the Congratulations – You Actually Have a Career Award.”
Alexander’s role in Lucky Stiff – a zany musical about a shoe salesman who will inherit a fortune if he takes his uncle’s corpse along on a Monte Carlo romp – hearkens to Alexander’s roots in musical theater. Growing up in New Jersey, Jay Greenspan was drawn to acting and singing as a child, and at 15 he took his stage name – incorporating his mother saying, “Jay, my son” and his father’s first name. His first big break came in what would have been his senior year at Boston University, when he was cast in Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along on Broadway at age 22.
Although the show was short-lived, roles on the stage, in television and in film followed. In 1989 he won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. His second big break came that same year when Seinfeld debuted. Alexander played Jerry Seinfeld’s longtime friend – and co-creator Larry David’s alter-ego – to neurotic perfection through 1998, garnering seven Emmy nominations. His film credits include memorable supporting roles as the sleazy lawyer in Pretty Woman (1990) and the trouble-making friend with a vestigial tail in Shallow Hal (2001). He has played dozens of television guest-star roles, and he has given voice to nearly 20 animated characters, including TV’s Duckman (1994-97) and Hugo in Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame films (1996, 2002).
A couple of starring-role sitcoms, Bob Patterson (2001) and Listen Up! (2004), did not cactch on, and Alexander says of late he has not been anxious to sign contracts that could tie him up for multiple years.
“I think, ‘Do I really want to be doing this three years from now?’ And the answer so far has always been no. I used to be afraid of the actor’s reality, which is you never know where your next job is coming from, and now I kinda love it. It keeps life really interesting and it keeps all the possibilities open.”
The possibilities that most intrigue him now are directing and passing along his craft to younger generations through lectures and classes. His one-dozen TV direction credits include several episodes of Seinfeld and, more recently, an episode of Mike & Molly. He has directed stage productions, as well, including Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound for a Los Angeles theater company this summer. He even directed and starred in Brad Paisley’s music video Online, which won the 2007 Country Music Association’s Video of the Year Award.
Alexander returns to South Florida in December to direct When You’re In Love, The Whole World Is Jewish, a comedy/musical revue based on several groundbreaking comedy albums of the mid-1960s (Dec. 11-Jan. 11 at the Mizner Park Cultural Arts Center, Boca Raton, 561-910-7727, worldisjewishtheplay.com).
“Directing and teaching have become the bigger passions for me,” Alexander says. “If I could I would convert my career away from performing as much as I do and dedicate it much more to directing. I find that more challenging, more fulfilling these days, but it’s not an easy transition to make.”
Changing perceptions – especially for an actor in the most popular sitcom of its age – is tough. With one of the most recognizable bald pates on stage and screen, Alexander has worn a hairpiece at times – it even has billing in his one-man show. After Alexander and his hair appeared on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson in February, he quipped via Twitter: “Before you all start ragging on my rug – let me say this, my nipples are fake, too. I don’t care to discuss it further.”
With or without the rug, Alexander anticipates he is moving into the second act of his career.
“I think the Costanza Effect is starting to play itself out with producers so they don’t sit around and go, ‘Well, do we want to hire George?’ I think there are more and more interesting acting opportunities coming my way. It’s just a question of, do I want to do them?”
He is working on a project that would take him back to Broadway, he says, and another that would bring him back to series television as an actor.
“It’s the first idea I’ve heard in a long time where everything about it makes me happy. I like what it’s about. I think it’s actually funny. It’s an idea that could sustain over several seasons, a cable network or Netflix thing. It doesn’t require me to do 22 episodes a year, which I think is an outdated model. That would be a great deal of fun.
So, would it be with hair or without?
“It’s definitely without hair,” he says.
George Costanza, whom Alexander resurrected early this year for an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld, still sports a hairless dome. He still seems socially challenged – Jerry accuses him of over-cheering at the Wasserstein’s Super Bowl party last year and availing himself of their master bathroom.
“I think George is locked in time,” Alexander says. “The only way that he would grow and mature is if he had a profound and sustaining relationship with someone or something, and as far as I know, he has yet to achieve that. So he is locked in his own mediocrity.”
The man who gave George life and won him laughs with his impeccable timing and hilarious delivery has long ago moved on. He is now accepting career achievement awards, with a nod to his most famous character.
“I’m sure the day I die, if the papers note it, they will say, ‘George Costanza died today.’ I made my peace with that a long time ago.”