Stiller's Frank Costanza kept Seinfeld viewers (and cast members) in stitches
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/05/2020 (990 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Devoted Seinfeld fans will know the role of Frank Costanza was originally scripted as a meek, downtrodden husband, at the mercy of his harridan wife Estelle.
However, the man playing Frank, Jerry Stiller (himself replacing another actor), realized the chemistry was off and asked if he could put his own spin on the role.
And thus a secondary-character legend was born: an aggrieved fireplug in an ill-fitting powder-blue leisure suit jacket, a simmering vat of rage who boiled over at the slightest provocation, despite his bellowed mantra, “Serenity now!”
Stiller, who won the role in his 70s after a long career on TV and in movies, died Sunday at age 92. And although he leaves behind a rich legacy of roles, including his many performances with his wife and comedic foil Anne Meara (who died in 2015), it’s Frank Costanza — father of George, wife of Estelle, Korean War vet, sporter of the “manssiere” (or “bro”), creator of Festivus — who will likely live longest in viewers’ memories.
In 2005, the actor told Esquire magazine, “Never go for the punchline. There might be something funnier on the way.” That philosophy can be seen at play in Seinfeld, where Stiller made even throwaway lines into catchphrases.
During the sitcom’s nine-season run (1989-1998), Stiller appeared (or was heard) in almost 30 episodes (it’s notable that, despite his renown, in only a handful is he involved in the A-plot).
Here, in no particular order, is an entirely subjective list of five of Stiller’s best moments on Seinfeld. All nine seasons of the show are available via Crave.
The Shower Head
The Seinfelds (Jerry’s parents) and the Costanzas have an uneasy relationship, with the former couple considering themselves a notch above their loud, crude acquaintances. It comes to a head in this season 7 episode, in which the B-plot involves the Costanzas trying to finagle their way into the Seinfelds’ retirement condo complex, Del Boca Vista, purely out of spite.
Morty Seinfeld (played by Barney Martin) picks up the phone to hear an apoplectic Frank on the line.
“You think you can keep us out of Florida?” he asks. “We’re moving in lock, stock and barrel.
“We’re gonna be in the pool. We’re gonna be in the clubhouse,” he says closing his eyes, his voice breaking. “We’re gonna be all over that shuffleboard court. And I dare you to keep me out!”
The Fusilli Jerry
In this overstuffed episode, the title refers to a pasta figurine of Jerry — fashioned by Kramer (Michael Richards) — that ends up lodged in an indelicate area of Frank’s anatomy. However, it contains a lot of other memorable moments, many involving Stiller. He and Estelle (Estelle Harris, who matches his rage with a higher-pitched version of her own) are on the outs. She’s had an eye-job and he insists he’s been improving himself too: “I worked out with a dumbbell yesterday; I feel vigorous!”
When Estelle tells him Kramer “stopped short and made a grab” with her while driving her home from her surgery, Frank, predictably, flies into a rage. He prowls Jerry’s apartment searching for Kramer, looking like an angry baboon. His mimed re-enactment of his signature seduction move is hilarious no matter how many times you watch it. (Seinfeld lore has it that Julia Louis-Dreyfus, playing Elaine, had to dig her fingernails into her palm to stop from laughing; you can see her clenched fist in the episode.)
It’s the obvious choice, perhaps, but this season 9 episode is an iconic Frank Costanza showcase that introduced the world to Festivus, an alternative to the madness of Christmas that poor George (Jason Alexander) was forced to celebrate throughout his childhood.
Though the climactic scene where the characters are gathered around the Festivus table, about to enjoy the airing of the grievances (“I got a lot of problems with you people and now you’re gonna hear about it”) and the feats of strength (“Stop crying and fight your father“) is justifiably renowned, the scene where Frank explains the origins of the holiday to Kramer is just as good, if only for Stiller’s cavalier delivery of the line, “As I rained blows upon him, I realized there had to be another way.“
The Serenity Now
Stiller’s at centre stage in this season 9 episode, in which Frank has been given a cassette by his doctor that instructs him to say “serenity now” to calm himself whenever he feels his blood pressure rising. (Writer Steve Koren based the episode on real life; he overheard his own father yelling it at his mother. Koren is no stranger to iconic sitcom episodes — he also penned the Palestinian Chicken ep of Curb Your Enthusiasm, starring Seinfeld creator Larry David.)
Stiller’s delivery of the mantra — half bark, half molar-exposing gargle, as he raises his hands to the heavens — is anything but calming. “Are you supposed to yell it?” George asks. “The man on the tape wasn’t specific,” Frank replies.
The Little Kicks
This season 8 episode, in which Jerry bootlegs movies and George tries out being a bad boy, is best known for Elaine’s terrible dancing at an office party, complete with the “little kicks” of the title.
However, Stiller, clad in his familiar lumpy suit jacket, gets his moment when picking up George from the police station.
“You wanna piece of me?” he brays at Elaine, and just the unusual way he emphasizes the words is funny.
Couple that with his housefly-like attention span — he turns on a dime from slapping George upside the head to belligerently challenging her to a fight — and it’s a Frankly wonderful moment. (The cast apparently agreed; in a bloopers clip from the scene, Louis-Dreyfus cannot keep a straight face, and Alexander somersaults off the set with laughter.)
Senior copy editor
Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.