Family & Companions
Film and television actress Estelle Harris made a career out of treating her onscreen family members with loving contempt. As Estelle Costanza on the now iconic sitcom, "Seinfeld" (NBC, 1989-1998), Harris was the tart-tongued mother of George Costanza (Jason Alexander) who hurled shrieks and insults at her aimless New Yorker son who never seemed to do anything right. She had a very distinct high-pitched voice that lent itself perfectly to portraying shrill relatives in films like "Playing Mona Lisa" (2000) and "Out to Sea" (1997), as well as bringing to life animated characters like the sassy Mrs. Potato Head in "Toy Story 2" (1999) and "Toy Story 3" (2010). While Harris had a late start in her career and played mostly nagging motherly figures, she still possessed an uncanny ability to give her characters depth and charm, and successfully endeared herself to audiences of all ages.
Estelle Nussbaum was born on April 4, 1932 in New York City (some sources say 1928; others 1936). Unlike most upcoming actresses who built their lives around acting lessons and casting calls, Harris was a homemaker in Long Island. She was a full-time mother who, whenever time permitted, performed in dinner theater and on TV commercials. Her life pre-"Seinfeld" mirrored that of another famous Estelle - Estelle Getty of "The Golden Girls" (NBC, 1985-1992) fame - who was also a housewife and mother living in Queens before becoming a late bloomer to show business. Making headway in her acting career late in life, Harris landed small roles in the feature films "Looking Up" (1977), "Summerdog" (1977), and in the crime drama "Once Upon a Time in America" (1984) as the unsympathetic mother of the promiscuous Peggy. At the prompting of her son Greg, who was a music producer, Harris tried out and appeared in three episodes of the 1986 comedy series "Night Court" (NBC, 1984-1992). She also appeared in the Academy Award-winning documentary "Brooklyn Bridge" (1981) that was produced by legendary filmmaker Ken Burns, years before his PBS success.
Television provided a stream of regular appearances for Harris, whose distinctive voice and acerbic appeal was in constant demand. She guest starred as a mother figure on the hit sitcom "Mad About You" (NBC, 1992-99), starring Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt as a newlywed couple struggling to make it in New York City. Coincidentally, it was another New York-based situational comedy that made Harris not only a household name but a revered supporting cast member of what many considered the greatest sitcom in the history of television, "Seinfeld." In 1992, Harris landed a supporting role in the "show about nothing," which launched the television careers of Jerry Seinfeld, Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Michael Richards. Harris played Estelle Costanza, the squeaky-voiced and overbearing mother of George Costanza (Alexander). Having never seen an episode before appearing on the show, she made her debut in the fourth season during the infamous episode, "The Contest," where the four main characters entered into a contest to determine who can go for the longest period of time without masturbating. Both cast and crew thought that the physical resemblance between Alexander and Harris was astounding, which made their onscreen mother-son relationship even more realistic. Harris was hilarious as the other half of George's equally eccentric father, Frank Costanza, originally played by John Randolph and then replaced by Jerry Stiller. Estelle Costanza, characterized by her bluntness, was always appalled at anything George and Frank took any interest into and spent virtually all her time screaming and belittling both men. Her high-pitched voice was the main accompaniment to her constant tirades and sarcastic remarks, and made each scene where she makes fun of George that much more enjoyable.
Her unique voice soon made Harris a sought after voiceover actress on TV and in movies. She was the voice of Lula, the shrill, unruly, and enchanted talking sword in the animated children's series, "Dave the Barbarian" (The Disney Channel, 2004-05), Mama Lipsky, Drakken's seemingly naïve mother who is actually very strong-willed, in "Kim Possible" (The Disney Channel, 2002-07), Old Lady Bear in the Disney fantasy "Brother Bear" (2003), Audrey, the high-strung but very brave chicken, in "Home on the Range" (2004), and appeared in one episode as Death's Mother on the bitingly funny television series "Family Guy" (Fox, 1999- ). Harris also voiced Mrs. Potato Head, the sweet and sassy spud who adored Mr. Potato Head, in the computer-animated Pixar hit, "Toy Story 2," the sequel to the blockbuster success "Toy Story" (1995). Featuring the voices of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, the "Toy Story" franchise - which included games, software, clothing, and action figures - set the bar in its use of innovative 3-D animation and motion-capture devices that made the toy characters genuinely life-like.
Harris did not stray too far from her "Seinfeld" character and often portrayed annoyingly shrill relatives on film, such as Aunt Harriet in the Nora Ephron-directed "This is My Life" (1992) and as Aunt Velda in "Playing Mona Lisa" with Harvey Fierstein. She also set sail as an in-your-face cruise ship vacationer alongside comedy icons Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in "Out to Sea." Harris worked with Lemmon and Matthau again in the duo's mishap-laced film "Odd Couple II" (1998). Her long-time association with The Disney Channel continued on into the new millennium with a recurring role as Muriel, a lazy maid in "The Suite Life of Zack and Cody" (The Disney Channel, 2005-08). In 2009, the cast of "Seinfeld" - including Harris - guest starred on "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David's hit series "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (HBO, 2000-09), in an episode about a fictionalized TV show reunion. Harris said in interviews she was not all that thrilled about the scripted dialogue she received for their "Curb" cameo, saying it took away from the improvisational dialogue she was used to on "Seinfeld." In 2010, the tireless Harris lent her voice once again to Mrs. Potato Head in "Toy Story 3," where her animated character appeared to have lost one eye.
Cast (Feature Film)
Had early film role in "Looking Up"
Had small role in "Once Upon a Time in America"
Early TV appearance on episode of "Night Court"
Had recurring role as Mrs. Costanza, George's mother, on the NBC sitcom "Seinfeld"
Played Shelley Long's receptionist on series "Good Advice" (CBS)