OK, the voice is really hers. But in person, George Costanza's continually kvetching mom on "Seinfeld"--who shrieks about "circles" on AT&T commercials with TV hubby Jerry Stiller--bears little resemblance to her on-screen character.
"Here's what I think about the Costanzas," Estelle Harris announces during a recent lunch in Downtown Los Angeles. "She married the first man who asked her. And they're not well-suited to each other at all, which is why they're always shouting at each other."
Harris is quick to add that she and her own husband, Sy Harris, have been married for 40 years and have three children of whom she is very proud. "She'd like to brag about George," Harris says of her "Seinfeld" character, "But he hasn't given her much to brag about. And even now that he has a good job, she doesn't have entirely too much confidence in him."
Mrs. Costanza's popularity often surprises the ebullient Harris. "People remember my shows!" she says enthusiastically. "They quote stuff back to me all the time."
Almost everybody's favorite: the episode in which she was introduced in 1992. Who could forget Mrs. Costanza's hospitalization after stumbling on George "being the master of his domain"? Or poor Mrs. Costanza inviting Jerry's parents over for paella, only to be snubbed by them?
"They always say the line I say to George, 'Too bad you can't do that for a living! You'd be very successful at it. You could sell out Madison Square Garden and thousands of people could watch you. You'd be a star!' and ' What am I going to do with all this paella?' "
Harris says this just loud enough for heads to turn, smiling, at the next table. She returns the smiles and begins eating her lunch, which happens to be a big dish of, you guessed it, paella. Harris is saltier and warmer than her TV counterpart, punctuating commentary with hand squeezes.
Like Mrs. Costanza, Harris makes paella, but "it was a coincidence it was in the script," she says. "The writers, (executive producer and co-creator) Larry David, are all just geniuses. I can imagine what George's mother did with that leftover paella. She probably took the seafood out, and when she reheated the rice, added fresh seafood."
"This is wonderful," she pronounces of her meal. "I'm a very good cook myself." Her recipe for mushroom barley soup appears in the recently released cookbook "Entertaining With Regis and Kathie Lee."
The East Coast native acted in her youth, but gave up show business when she married. After her kids were grown, she began dabbling in community theater, where she was rediscovered 23 years ago. A Long Island production of "Come Back, Little Sheba" led to an agent and regular theater work.
Eventually, casting agents found the perfect niche for Harris: commercials. "One year," she declares, "I did 27 national commericals." She drops in and out of character of her popular commericals, including the sing-songy, "It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that cling . . . doo-wrap, doo-wrap, doo-wrap," for a plastic food wrap.
Later, television guest roles followed, including a recurring role on "Night Court" as the sweet hooker Easy Mary. "I loved playing her," Harris recalls, patting her hair the way the character did. "See? Just talking about her gets me acting like her."
Harris' work in features includes "Once Upon a Time in America," "This Is My Life" and "Perfect Alibi."
Right now, though, she'd love to be a regular on "Seinfeld." "Make it clear I'm only a recurring character," she says, with a hand squeeze for emphasis. "I don't need my own show; I want to be a regular ." She's got ideas of what should happened to Mrs. Costanza: "I think they should separate. She could get her own place and all kinds of great adventures could occur."
"Seinfeld" airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on NBC. This week, an hourlong retrospective celebrates the 100th episode.