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Alexander's Big-Time Band of Characters : WHAT GEORGE COSTANZA, A PRETZEL PUSHER AND THE DUCKMAN HAVE IN COMMON

March 27, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

All the world loves a clown. And the world seems to love Jason Alexander, who has become one of TV's most popular funny guys, thanks to his role as George Costanza, stand-up comic Jerry Seinfeld's nebbish, Angst- ridden friend, on "Seinfeld."

Over the last four years, fans of the hit NBC sitcom have watched George get fired from his job as a real estate agent, go from one hopeless job interview to another, move back home with his neurotic, overbearing parents and even lose his girlfriends to women. Seinfeld often calls him "Biff," referring to salesman Willy Loman's hapless son from Arthur Miller's play "Death of a Salesman."

Since "Seinfeld" premiered, Alexander has received two Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, won an American Television Award and two American Comedy Awards for his work on the series. He even nabbed a prestigious Directors Guild Award nomination last year for stepping behind the camera to direct an episode.

But Alexander never dreamed of TV stardom. Growing up in Livingston, N.J., visions of singing and dancing on Broadway filled his head.

"The theater was everything," Alexander, 34, says emphatically. His love affair with the stage began nearly 30 years ago when he saw his first Broadway musical, "Fiddler on the Roof," starring Zero Mostel.

"It was all I ever wanted to do. I never thought about film or television. It didn't seem like a possibility. But if I could work in New York or Broadway, specifically, I thought that was the be all and end all. I still do. I don't think there is anything more exciting."

More than 20 years ago, Alexander saw the musical that changed his life--Bob Fosse's landmark "Pippin," which made star Ben Vereen the toast of Broadway. " 'Pippin' changed my life because I was so into magic as a kid," Alexander explains. "It was something I almost pursued very seriously. I was really into musicals. I went to this show, and from the minute it started to the minute it ended, it was choreographed within an inch of its life. You didn't know where to look next. I just thought, 'My God. This is what I wanted to do forever and forever and ever.' I wanted to be Ben Vereen. I started taking tap lessons right after I saw that show thinking somehow I would be Ben Vereen."

A decade later, Alexander became a Broadway star in his own right, starring in Neil Simon's "Broadway Bound" and in Stephen Sondheim's musical "Merrily We Roll Along." He also appeared opposite Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli in Kander and Ebb's "The Rink." Five years ago, Alexander won the Tony Award for best actor in a musical for "Jerome Robbins' Broadway." And just like his idol Vereen, Alexander became the toast of Broadway.

"I had to re-evaluate my entire fantasy life after that," Alexander acknowledges with a smile. "I thought if I was very lucky, that by the time I was 60 I would get into a Broadway show that maybe would be worthy of winning a Tony. The Tony was the end point. At 29, I said, 'Gee. Now what?' I had to reassess my ambitions."

Alexander is sitting in a booth in the back room of Jerry's Famous Deli in Studio City, not far from where "Seinfeld" tapes. It's his lunch break from a "Seinfeld" rehearsal, and Alexander is munching on lox and a bagel.

In person, one realizes what a great acting job Alexander does on the series. The actor and his TV alter ego couldn't be more dissimilar, both physically and personality-wise. Unlike George, Alexander doesn't wear glasses. He looks younger and thinner. George is full of self-doubt, but Alexander is self-assured and brimming with confidence. While his small-screen self can't keep a girlfriend, Alexander is happily married to actress-writer Daena Title; they have a 2 year-old son, Gabriel.

"I can't go anywhere and not be recognized," Alexander acknowledges. "I can go places and not be bothered, but that's limited to New York and L.A. The rest of the country has seemed to notch up their interest (in the series). At first it was glancing waves or, 'I like the show,' but then they would move on."

Now that's all changed since NBC moved the Emmy Award-winning series early last year from Wednesdays opposite "Home Improvement" to Thursday nights after "Cheers." Suddenly, "Seinfeld" went from a cult series to a Top Five hit. The show is now the network's top-rated series.

"I had a vacation in Florida over the holidays and it got to where I was almost being rude to people. I am very interested in meeting people and responding to them. But I got my son screaming in my arms and people are saying, 'Can we take a picture?' People just stop seeing ... somehow it's not real. A lot of it can be very obtrusive."

Alexander doesn't really know why George has become part of pop culture. "Everywhere I go somebody says, 'I am just like George' or 'I know someone like George.' You know, George is a very heroic loser. But I don't know why people gravitate to him so much. He seems to be the character everyone touchstones to. He seems the most realistic."

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