Some voices are just so iconic, they live in your head forever. I feel that way about the sweet, powerful and unique voice of Estelle Harris, the Jewish actress who played George Costanza’s mom in “Seinfeld” as well as Mrs. Potato Head in the “Toy Story” franchise, who has passed away at age 93.
It’s hard to think of her without seeing her in your mind, frizzy short hair, blue eyes, diminutive stature, yelling “GEORGEEEEE” in a voice that is absolutely unforgettable.
“That voice coming out of that tiny body, it’s instant comedy,” Jason Alexander, who played her onscreen son, recalled in one interview.
“I didn’t have to act with Estelle, I knew where things were from the moment she opened her mouth,” Jerry Stiller, who played her on-screen husband Frank Costanza, once recalled.
Harris’ first appearance on the show was in 1992, in an episode called “The Contest,” in which she catches her son masturbating (funnily enough, in the audience taping of that episode, another actress with a unique Jewish voice stood in for Harris — Fran Drescher).
It was Harris’ son who drove her to the audition for “Seinfeld.” She knew nothing about the show, but he was the one who told her it was important. Everyone was immediately taken with her.
“The voice is great, the look is perfect,” Larry David said.
“We were laughing at the resemblance of her and Jason,” Seinfeld recalled.
Alexander also often spoke about how she resembled his real mom. While their voices were different, the actual things they said were pretty darn similar.
Harris, the daughter of Polish Jews who owned a Manhattan candy store, started acting as a child as a way to distract her from the antisemitic bullying she experienced after her family moved to Pennsylvania. Yet, she didn’t start acting professionally until her three children with husband Sy Harris were all grown up.
Some of her first roles were Jewish, including Esther Shapiro in the 1991 drama “Brooklyn Bridge.”
And while none of the roles that she is best known for were Jewish characters, they sure all felt a lot like it. In my head, and I’m sure for many others, Estelle Costanza feels like the quintessential Jewish mother — opinionated, loving, doting, perhaps a bit overbearing. As Jerry Stiller once joked, the Costanzas were a Jewish family in the witness protection program.
“She is the mother that everybody loves, even though she’s a pain in the neck,” Harris poignantly summed up for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1998. With the popularity of “Seinfeld,” Estelle was internationally adored — “They love me in Israel,” Harris said in one interview.
As for Mrs. Potato Head, well, the toy itself does have a Jewish inventor, and the role feels like a softer version of Estelle Costanza. And of course, she was once again paired with a great Jewish comedian — Don Rickles, who voiced Mr. Potato Head.
That particular role was one that the actor was particularly effusive about because of how much her three grandsons loved it: “My grandchildren say that they’re much more popular with their teachers and their doctors — you’re Mrs. potato head grandsons?!”
It’s also a role that gave her a lot of personal naches, or pride: “I thought I was wonderful,” Harris told one interviewer about her voice acting in the movie. “And I never think I’m wonderful,” she added.
According to Harris, the three most important things in her life were always “my children, my grandchildren, and my career. In that order.”
“One of my favorite people has passed – my tv mama, Estelle Harris,” Alexander wrote on social media after her passing. “The joy of playing with her and relishing her glorious laughter was a treat. I adore you, Estelle. Love to your family. Serenity now and always.”
May her memory be a blessing.