October 19, 2000
'Seinfeld' star Jason Alexander moves behind the camera with 'Just Looking.'
Jason Alexander is having a "George" moment. "I don't fast on Yom Kippur, but then I do this," he says, looking heavenward and mock-cringing. "No offense!" he blurts.
It's a scene right out of "Seinfeld," but then again, the 41-year-old actor shares more than a few neuroses with the hapless shlep he portrayed for nine years on TV.
Forget Alexander ever playing a traditional leading man: "I'm short and bald," he says. Never mind the millions he made on "Seinfeld"; he's still convinced he could end up penniless. Then there's the fallout from playing George Costanza, one of the most popular characters ever on television. "I can't push George away, because it's like pushing a mountain away," Alexander confides. "If I were to walk onstage as Hamlet, everyone would go, 'Look, it's George.'"
So the Emmy-nominated actor has a ruse to help George fade from public memory: He's diversifying. Since "Seinfeld" went off the air, he's starred in Lee Kalcheim's "Defiled" at the Geffen Playhouse; he's played Boris Badenov in "Rocky and Bullwinkle" and his production company, AngelArk Inc., has signed a deal with Fox TV.
Alexander is also stepping behind the camera, most recently as director of the comedy-drama "Just Looking," which opened last week in Los Angeles. Set in 1955, it's the tale of a 14-year-old Bronx Jewish boy named Lenny (Ryan Merriman), who is obsessed with witnessing "an act of love" on his summer vacation. For Alexander, it's a familiar milieu, one that takes him back to his childhood in middle-class Jewish-Italian neighborhoods in New Jersey.
Alexander, né Jay Greenspan, says he was a fat kid who used comedy to put off his tormentors at school. "It was a preemptive strike against cruelty," explains the actor, who memorized every comedy album in his parents' home. His Woody Allen and Jackie Mason impressions mollified the bullies. "But I didn't look at it as performing," says Alexander, who won a 1989 Tony for his role in "Jerome Robbins' Broadway." "It was just survival."
At 13, he discovered the theater and knew he had found his calling. He felt powerful onstage, he says, at a time when he felt powerless everywhere else in life. He took tap dancing lessons from two 80-year-old ex-Ziegfeld girls, four towns away so his classmates wouldn't find out and taunt him. By the time he finished junior high, he had a manager, a union card and a stage name (Alexander is his father's first name). The actor's sexual coming-of-age, meanwhile, was far more dramatic than fictional Lenny's in "Just Looking." "I didn't quite have his period of innocence," Alexander says ruefully. "I actually had my first experience at 13 with an actress who was in her 30's in the wings of a theater during the rehearsal of a show." The show ended, and so did the relationship. "Then I had this four-and-a-half year hiatus [from sex]," the director recalls. "I went around to every girl I knew, trying to sell her on this great thing I'd found, but I couldn't close the deal."
Alexander says he toned down the originally titillating "Just Looking" script so the protagonist could enjoy some of the childhood innocence he missed. Then he has another George moment: "I just think about my poor parents going, 'We knew we shouldn't have let him do theater!'"
Also at 13, Alexander completed his Bar Mitzvah, turned to his parents and said, "Are we done?" His Jewish education had been less than inspiring: "What had been offered me as religious training was a lot of form and no content," he says. "I could read Hebrew right to left, left to right, upside down, no vowels, but I didn't know what one word meant."
Over the years, Alexander remained a strictly cultural Jew - until he and his wife, Daena, accepted an invitation to visit Israel on an Anti-Defamation League (ADL) trip in 1991.
The actor went reluctantly. "My impression of Israel was that the whole country was going to be carrying Torahs, swinging payes, and that I was going to feel incredibly isolated," he says. "I thought everyone would look on me as worse than a Nazi, as if I were single-handedly destroying the religion."
Instead, Alexander had one of the most amazing spiritual experiences of his life: "Suddenly, every previously meaningless thing they'd been yakking about in Hebrew school was right in front of me," he says. "I was standing on the place where the Temple was. I was swimming in Lake Tiberias. I was standing on top of Masada and looking down at the remnants of the Roman camps."
The 10-day trip, he says, prompted his Jewish reawakening; while he and Daena remain mostly nonobservant, they have vowed to join a synagogue so they can educate their two sons. Alexander, for his part, routinely appears at ADL and other Jewish functions and donated $11,800 from a "Jeopardy!" charity appearance to ADL.
He even convinced "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David to tone down an episode that featured a bumbling mohel: "The fact that the mohel was nervous was funny," he explains. "The fact that he hated children was not."
But don't tell Alexander that "Seinfeld" is "self-hatingly Jewish," in the words of TV critic Tom Shales. Sure, there was the episode called "Shiksappeal," in which Elaine discovers Jewish men like her because she's not Jewish. Sure, there was the show in which a mean chef is dubbed a "Soup Nazi." "But we made fun of everyone," insists Alexander, who landed the "Seinfeld" role by doing a Woody Allen impression on his audition tape. "We were equal-opportunity insulters."
The actor, for his part, is all but insulted when a reporter suggests that George is a meeskayt (ugly). "George is dear," he corrects. "I have trouble understanding how he could ever be seen as unlikeable. Of course I'm aware that 'Seinfeld' is based on the relationships of four of the most selfish people who reveled in each others' misery. But to me, it was always so clear that George was just a victim of his own insecurity. He's the guy who always turns around and goes, 'Am I an idiot?' He's constantly trying to overcompensate because he knows he's not enough for anyone, including himself."
One criticism of Seinfeld is that the seemingly Jewish characters were never declared Jewish. So, The Journal had to ask: Was George or wasn't he? Alexander pauses before replying. "He wasn't in my own mind until they cast his parents three-and-a-half seasons in," he reveals. "Estelle Harris played George's mother, and she can't be anything but Jewish. So I thought his folks must have had a mixed marriage, and you can make up your own mind as to how they raised George."