From TV Sitcom to Truman : Jason Alexander of ‘Seinfeld’ begins a monthlong run as the President who gave ‘em hell

<i> David Wharton is a Times staff writer</i>

You might have to squint at first, maybe use your imagination, to picture Jason Alexander as an elder statesman.

The New Jersey-born actor is more commonly known as George Costanza on the NBC sitcom “Seinfeld.” The balding one with no job and even fewer prospects. The one who frets without end and always seems to get himself into a fix.

Or people recognize him as Richard Gere’s sleazy lawyer in “Pretty Woman.” “Women across America hated me for a long time,” Alexander says. “I was the scumbag who raped Julia Roberts.”


Now, he begins a monthlong run as Harry S. Truman in “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry” at the Tiffany Theater in West Hollywood. The role is considerably more dignified than his weekly sitcom persona.

“He’s able to do so many things,” Jerry Seinfeld says, explaining that no one should be surprised to think of Alexander as presidential. “The stage is his thing, dissolving into a character.”

And the play, made famous by James Whitmore, couldn’t have been revived at a more appropriate time.

“Nowadays, there’s a feeling that Washington, politics . . . it’s not a government of the people,” Alexander says. “With Truman, here was a guy who was obviously a man of the people. He wasn’t tremendously educated, but he got involved in the process.

“It’s awfully refreshing to hear a man who ran this country based on his common sense.”

Heidi Swedberg, who is new to the “Seinfeld” cast, rehearses a scene with Alexander. The two are supposed to be in a car and she is scolding him for driving too fast.

Turning away from the script, she says, “It’s like I’m talking to a dog.”

“You are,” director Tom Cherones blurts. “You’re talking to a bad dog.”

“Welcome to the world of ‘Seinfeld,’ ” Alexander responds.

The entirely fallible George is based on Woody Allen’s film personality, Alexander insists. But the 33-year-old actor may be a bit of a nebbish himself. Relaxing on the set, grabbing a bite to eat between rehearsals, he apologizes to a visitor. “I’m eating onions,” he says, self-consciously. “If they offend, let me know.”

His upcoming role on the stage, he explains, was born of both necessity and opportunity.

Though the masses know him best on screen, Alexander has spent most of his acting life on stage. In 1989, he won a Tony Award for best actor in “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.” Lately, he’s had an itch to get back to the theater.

But a weekly TV shooting schedule doesn’t leave much time for regular rehearsals. A one-man play, with a rehearsal schedule designed specifically for the one man, seemed like the only alternative.

At roughly the same time, a gentleman by the name of Ross Perot popped into the public eye.

“This was a guy trying so hard to be Truman, to be a man of the people, and he wasn’t really cutting it,” Alexander says.

Perot inspired Alexander to revive the play. “I called my producer friends and said, ‘Do you want to spend $50,000 and not make any of it back?’ ” They said yes.

“He’s really versatile,” says Mel Johnson Jr., who is directing “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry.” “We can tap into a whole different side of him.”

So Alexander began researching. There were biographies to read, and articles to scan in the UCLA archives. He listened to radio tapes. “That Midwestern voice, there’s a lot of tension in there and it gets to the chords,” he says, massaging his throat.

Rehearsals were scheduled in and around “Seinfeld.” The constant switching from sitcom to stage hasn’t fazed this actor whose career has ranged from Broadway to beer commercials, from musicals to drama.

It began with a childhood fascination for musicals. At 5, he was singing the score from “Fiddler on the Roof.” At 13, he was taking tap lessons.

His first Broadway role came at age 20 when he played Joe, the producer, in “Merrily We Roll Along.” That was also the first of many roles where the actor portrayed a much older character. A number of these plays had troubled runs, including “The Rink,” the 1984 Chita Rivera-Liza Minnelli show that was critically panned but ran nine months.

“If they were flops, they were fantastic flops,” Alexander says. “Legendary.”

In between productions, he got work in commercials and was rarely without a job, never having to endure the long spells of waiting by the telephone. His first big break came in early 1989, when Jerome Robbins talked him into playing the narrator in the director’s retrospective.

“From the minute I heard about the show, I knew it would be fantastic,” Alexander says. “I just didn’t think there was anything for an actor to do in it.”

He was wrong. Introducing numbers, playing the emcee in “On the Town,” dancing as Pa in “High Button Shoes,” performing as Pseudolus in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and--fulfilling a lifelong dream--as Tevye in “Fiddler,” Alexander offered a performance that drew rave reviews.

“He is the glue that holds the show together,” wrote Glenn Collins of the New York Times.

The next break came with the release of “Pretty Woman.” The film’s director, Garry Marshall, wanted another actor for the role. But when time ran out on the casting, he settled for Alexander. The movie was a hit, and then came “Seinfeld.”

“The main thing was that he and I hit it off as friends and that made for the chemistry on the set,” Seinfeld said. “I had no experience at acting and he was able to adjust to that and bring me along.”

Says Alexander: “I never thought of myself doing television. But on this show, they’re smart. They don’t pretend that we’re learning or growing. They say, bald-faced, ‘We’re here to make you laugh.’ Then they do it.”

Alexander “gives a hilarious and pathetic oomph to the show,” TV Guide wrote. All of which has led to respectable ratings, a busy schedule and Harry S. Truman.

Despite his extensive theatrical background, Alexander is finding it a challenge to anchor a one-man show. There are no moments on stage when he can relax, when he can let other actors control the scene.

“Working on a one-man show, you don’t have the other actors to react off of,” Johnson says. “You have to rely on yourself.”

Alexander ponders the responsibility in less technical terms. He says, in a complaint that might just as well have come from George: “There’s no time to daydream.”