Jerry Stiller Wasn’t the Original Frank Costanza on ‘Seinfeld’: Why He Initially Turned Down the Role
For many people, Jerry Stiller is best known as George Costanza’s (Jason Alexander) easily angered father Frank Costanza on Seinfeld. But Stiller’s take on Frank almost never happened. The comedian — who died on May 11 at 92 — initially turned down a role on the hit sitcom, and a different actor played the character in his first onscreen appearance.
John Randolph was the first Frank Costanza
It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Stiller as Frank Costanza, but the comedian was not the first person to play the role.
Seinfeld had been on the air for several years before George’s father even showed up in an episode. He made his debut in season 4’s ‘The Handicap Spot.’ In that episode, George borrows his father’s beloved car, which ends up damaged by an angry mob after he parks illegally in a handicap spot. Later, Frank is receiving an award for helping the handicapped when he is arrested for illegal parking.
Tony-winner John Randolph played Frank in this episode. But his take on the character wasn’t quite what producers were looking for, so they decided to approach another actor.
Why Jerry Stiller turned down ‘Seinfeld’
The Seinfeld team had already approached Stiller once about playing George’s father, but Stiller had said he wasn’t interested.
“They said they want you to play the father of George Costanza on Seinfeld, and I said, ‘Who’s Seinfeld?’” Stiller recalled in an interview. “They said it is a very funny show and it is on the air right now. And I said, ‘Well, I am in a Broadway show. I am about to rehearse. I pass. [They said] ‘What?!’ I pass. I don’t want to do it.”
Six months later, Seinfeld co-creator Larry David came calling again. By that time, his Broadway show had closed, and Stiller agreed to give the show a shot.
Stiller added his own spin to Frank Costanza
Once on the Seinfeld set, Stiller quickly realized he needed to bring his own spin to Frank’s character. David had asked him to play Frank as a more subdued foil to his shrill wife Estelle (Estelle Harris), with the idea that the contrast between the two would be funny. But that wasn’t working. So Stiller decided to meet her yelling with yelling of his own.
“We started rehearsing the first show, and she’s screaming at me all the time. I’m kind of taking it. And I said to myself, ‘I’m going to get fired, the same way as the other guy, because nothing is happening,’” he said.
In the final dress rehearsal before Stiller’s first episode, he switched gears. When Frank’s wife started berating him, he decided the character should give as good as he got. The response was immediate.
“Everybody starts laughing and David said, ‘Jerry, keep it that way,’ Stiller recalled. “And that was the beginning of Frank Costanza. We established the character.”
Stiller went on to appear in nearly 30 Seinfeld episodes, turning Frank into one of the most memorable characters on the show. The scenes featuring his character in “The Handicap Spot” were even reshot for syndication, so that viewers wouldn’t be confused by the appearance of a different Frank. But you can still see Randolph’s original interpretation of the character in the episode that’s streaming on Hulu.