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

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."

Much more so than Michael Richards' crazy Kramer. "He is outlandish. Kramer has become the cult character. People will laugh at him, but they don't recognize him. George, still with everything, is in the realm of guys that we know. But why we have senior citizens responding to him, why we have little kids responding to him, why we have women in their 40s responding to him--no one is more surprised than we are."

As much as Alexander enjoys playing George, he is making a concerted effort not to be typecast. Last year he became the commercial spokesperson for Frito Lay's Rold Gold Pretzel Chips. Viewers got the first glimpse of his new Rold Gold commercial during the Winter Olympics. The latest spot finds Alexander becoming a hero at a hockey game, thanks to eating the new Rold Gold Fat-Free Thins Pretzels.

"We got him re-signed for several spots this year," says Tod MacKenzie, vice president of advertising and public affairs for Frito Lay. "Two things attracted us to him. There is this enormous likability, kind of as an Everyman type that I think everyone can relate to. Then obviously, he is highly recognizable. In getting to know him, especially with the first spot we shot this year, we have learned that he's great at physical comedy. That obviously lent itself very well to the hockey spot. We think it will continue in some of the ideas we have got for further ads."

MacKenzie says the company had a "fabulous" year for pretzels. "Certainly, advertising played an important part. The advertising with Jason played a key role."

Alexander also is the voice of "Duckman," the irascible private eye and family man on the new USA animated series. "It was a straight audition," Alexander says. "I had never even thought of animation. I sort of fell into a recurring character on the 'Aladdin' series coming up on the Disney Channel. 'Duckman' was a spur-of-the-moment audition. It has been unbelievable fun."

According to the series' co-executive producers and writers, Jeff Reno and Ron Osborn of "Moonlighting" fame, Alexander was the only one who fit the bill as Duckman. The casting director, Osborn says, listened to 350 audition tapes. "We narrowed that down to almost 100 auditions and that doesn't include actors Jeff and I contacted ourselves. It was fairly involved."

"Jason just had a great combination of things," Reno says. "It's weird. It's kind of strange to say that someone walked in and completely embodied the role of an overbearing duck. The character is a kind of irascible character who likes to rant and rave against whatever inequalities he sees around him, but we wanted to maintain an emotional reality in the show. Jason came in and sort of had all of that. He just hit all of the bases for us."

Alexander also was featured in the 1993 Oscar-nominated short "Down on the Waterfront" and has three feature films out this year, including Ron Howard's "The Paper," which opened March 18. In the newspaper drama, Alexander plays a beleaguered New York commissioner of parking who gets drunk in a bar with editor Robert Duvall. "That was a really fun thing," Alexander says.

Originally, Howard pursued Alexander to play an acerbic columnist. "Ron and I knew there was no way that we were going to work around 'Seinfeld,' " Alexander says. So Randy Quaid got the columnist role and Howard found a small but pivotal part for Alexander. "I had a one-week hiatus and we shot it in New York in four days."

Alexander says he's glad he did the film. "It turned out to be one of the best film experiences I've had. I didn't know Duvall was in the movie. I literally got on the set and looked at the end of the bar and went, 'Is that Robert Duvall?' "

During his summer hiatus last year, Alexander filmed Rob Reiner's new comedy "North," which is due out in July. Ironically, he plays the husband of "Seinfeld" regular Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

"As you can imagine, working with Rob is a lot of fun," he says. "He has a very lighthearted set. I laughed a lot. I don't love making movies, because they are so damn tedious to do, but one day I am working with Jon Lovitz, the next day I am working with Alan Arkin and I am always working with Julia. This is not bad. I learned 500 new jokes."

Alexander doesn't really know what to make of his other summer release, Damon Wayan's "Blankman," in which he has a cameo as a crusty TV producer.

"I don't know what to say about 'Blankman,' " he states diplomatically. "I came into it very late. It crosses into many different styles. I was not able to discern what style we were doing. The character was rather extreme. It seemed funny."

Though his TV and movie career are going gangbusters, Alexander craves the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd. "I miss the stage," he laments. "I miss musicals because they are just joyous to do. I miss the autonomy of the stage. Invariably, I don't think there's been a single performance of 'Seinfeld' which was actually the way I did it. They take a piece of something here and a piece of something there. We always tape long and it's necessary to cut anywhere from two to nine minutes. It's frustrating after a long time if you care about what you're doing."

His dream is to go back to New York and direct musicals. And eventually movies. "I just saw Steve (Sondheim) again at the Kennedy Center. I told him it was my one desire to direct the film of 'Sweeney Todd.' "

Alexander pauses and breaks into a wide grin. "I am going to have to badger him until he gives it to me."

"Seinfeld" airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on NBC; "Duckman" airs Saturdays at 10:30 p.m. on USA.

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