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An interview with Jason Alexander

Jason Alexander is known to TV audiences around the world, of course, as George Costanza on Seinfeld, a role which garnered him six Emmy and four Golden Globe nominations, an American Television Award and two American Comedy Awards. He's also appeared in numerous films like Pretty Woman, in TV commercials, and in Broadway musicals where he won a Tony for his role in Jerome Robbins' Broadway. He also starred alongside Martin Short in the acclaimed L.A. production of The Producers. More recently, he's been directing things like Sam Shepard's God of Hell as well as his own newly-adapted rendition of Damn Yankees for the Los Angeles Reprise Theater Company, where he serves as Artistic Director. Jason is also a spokesman for OneVoice, an organization committed to promoting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Through his interest in giving back to the community, I had the good fortune of interviewing him after he spoke at a gala fund raising event for a charity I'm involved with. (You may recall our recent effort to eradicate hunger here in Los Angeles.) He was, as he always is, blunt and hilarious. Please feel free to drop a comment at the end of the interview telling us your all-time favorite Jason Alexander moment.

DI: You're a man of many talents: actor, stand-up comedian, musical theater star, magician, poker player. Which do you enjoy the most?

JA: You left out: writer, director, martial artist and sex symbol. Now here's my favorite "“ father.

DI: You've worked with some of the greats of stage and screen (big and small). From Jerry Robbins to Jerry Seinfeld, from Julia Louis-Dreyfus to Julia Roberts. Who's been the most influential?

JA: Best director I've ever had "“ Joe Mantello (Love, Valor, Compassion); Best teacher "“Larry Moss. The word genius gets thrown around a lot. I've only met two in my line of work "“Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins. They think like no other people I know. I understand more from knowing them. I am a better person because of what they have given the world.

DI: The name on your birth certificate is Jay Scott Greenspan. Okay: we get Jason from Jay S but what about Alexander? Where'd that come from?

JA: Alexander the Great, clearly. Okay, I lied. I thought I would be Jason Scott, but when I went to register in the union with that name, it was taken with every possible spelling "“ including Jaisin Skot. Feeling badly about not using my family name, I made a snap decision to take my dad's first name as my last one for the stage. Hence "“ Jason Alexander.

DI: If you could have lunch with anyone deceased, who would it be?

JA: Mahatma Gandhi. First, he was always fasting so I doubt it would be a big bill if I had to pick up the check. Second, I want to know how so much wisdom, courage and strength could reside in a single soul. If the Mahatma couldn't make it, I'd take Ben Kingsley for an hour "“ but he's not dead.

seinfeld-cast-getty-5203121DI: What's your favorite beverage?

JA: Diet Coke. Never been a better beverage on the planet. They shouldn't touch it "“ don't mess with it. It's perfect. I'm not losing weight, but I don't blame the soda.

DI: What did you want to be when you were growing up?

JA: I wanted to be a magician. I worked at it very studiously. A few years ago, I started performing at the Magic Castle. I won an award given by fellow magicians. It meant almost as much as an Oscar. I assume"¦ I don't actually have an Oscar.

DI: Who's your idol?

JA: I don't believe in idols. Isn't that the first commandment? But one of my heroes is TJ Leyden "“ a reformed neo-Nazi skinhead who has risked his life teaching young people the subversive, destructive power of hate and the redemptive and miraculous power of decency, education, responsibility and love. I have done the foreword for his book Skinhead Confessions: From Hate to Hope and I consider him a good friend. I also adore men like Daniel Lubetsky of the OneVoice organization who has dedicated his life to empowering moderate populations to take control of their own journeys to peace. He is a constant inspiration.

DI: Do you miss the days when you could hold an album jacket in your hands and page through the liner notes or are MP3s just as good?

JA: I don't get nutty over packaging "“ only over content.

DI: What's one of your favorite novels?

JA: I adore Richard Bach's Illusions "“ The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. I read it every year on my birthday. It is a remarkable way to look at life. I've been trying to turn it into a stage musical for years. I must imagine it done sometime. (Read the book, you'll understand.)

DI: What's your favorite junk food?

JA: Double Stuf Oreos. Fantastic with Diet Coke.

DI: Dodgers or Angels? (Or should we ask: Yankees or Mets?)

JA: Honestly? I could care less. My uncle, Jack Simon, directed the Met, Knick and Ranger games while I was growing up. The Mets are in my blood. George worked for the Yankees, but Jason cheered for the Mets.

DI: Who's your favorite Saturday Night Live player of all time?

JA: That's hard because there have been so many great players and so diverse a range of comedy. But I have to say that I consistently laughed out loud over and over watching Billy Crystal. I thought he was brilliant. And when I hosted, Adam Sandler broke me up, live on the air.

DI: You were born in Newark, N.J. Many other notables hail from Newark, including Brian De Palma, Allen Ginsberg, Whitney Houston, Jerry Lewis, Shaquille O'Neal, Philip Roth, and Paul Simon. Is there something in the water there?

JA: I don't remember much about Newark, but I can assure you the dominant beverage is not water.

Picture 3DI: Did you have a bar mitzvah? If so, what do you remember most?

JA: I was bar mitzvahed in a conservative"“leaning to Orthodox temple. I had a mega bar mitzvah. A three-hour service that was about 2.5 hours of me. I remember we couldn't have a band at the reception, so I sang with my friend, Brian Clark. And boy, did we make money!

DI: You've done lots of TV commercials for different types of products. Which is your favorite?

JA: I did a spot for Western Union that ran on and off for eight years. It will put my kid through college. I'd consider that a personal favorite.

DI: What memento did you take with you from the Seinfeld set?

JA: I've got lots of George clothes. I've got the George glasses. And I've got two final scripts signed by EVERYBODY! I'm not a big collector. Mostly, I have nine years of great memories and more laughs than I know what to do with.

DI: When you hear someone call out the name George, do you ever think they're talking to you?

JA: I used to. But after I turned around all smug-like a few times to discover they were calling someone named George, I learned my lesson.

DI: Any guilty pleasure television on your TiVO?

JA: Nothing that's total crap. It's hard to make me laugh out loud. Family Guy does it every time. They're genius.

DI: Anything you wish we'd have asked?

JA: When will they remake Fiddler on the Roof with me? I don't know, but my mom is 88 "“ they better hurry.

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© 2017 USPS
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Pop Culture
Speedy Delivery: Mister Rogers Will Get His Own Stamp in 2018
© 2017 USPS
© 2017 USPS

USPS 2018 Mister Rogers stamp
© 2017 USPS

After weeks of mailing out this year’s holiday cards, postage might be the last thing you want to think about. But the U.S. Postal Service has just given us a sneak peek at the many iconic people, places, and things that will be commemorated with their own stamps in 2018, and one in particular has us excited to send out a few birthday cards: Mister Rogers.

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers’s groundbreaking PBS series that the USPS says “inspired and educated young viewers with warmth, sensitivity, and honesty,” the mail service shared a mockup of what the final stamp may look like. On it, Rogers—decked out in one of his trademark colorful cardigans (all of which were hand-knitted by his mom, by the way)—smiles for the camera alongside King Friday XIII, ruler of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

Though no official release date for Fred’s forever stamp has been given, Mister Rogers is just one of many legendary figures whose visages will grace a piece of postage in 2018. Singer/activist Lena Horne will be the 41st figure to appear as part of the USPS’s Black Heritage series, while former Beatle John Lennon will be the face of the newest Music Icons collection. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, will also be honored.

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Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival
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15 Surprising Facts About Steve Buscemi
Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival
Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival

With his meme-worthy eyes, tireless work schedule, and penchant for playing lovable losers, Steve Buscemi is arguably the king of character actors. Moving seamlessly between big-budget films and shoestring independent projects, he’s appeared in well over 100 movies in the past 30 years. But if you think he’s anything like the oddballs and villains he regularly plays—well, you don’t know Buscemi. In celebration of the Brooklyn native's 60th birthday, here are 15 things you might not have known about the Golden Globe-winning actor.

1. HE WAS BORN ON A FRIDAY THE 13TH.

It only seems appropriate that Buscemi, who dies on screen so frequently, would be born on such a foreboding date. Growing up in Brooklyn and Valley Stream, New York, Buscemi also experienced plenty of real-life misfortune. As a kid, he was hit by a bus and by a car (in separate incidents). On the plus side, he used the money from the legal settlement following the bus accident to attend the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York City.

2. HE WAS A NEW YORK CITY FIREFIGHTER.

As a teenager, Buscemi worked a series of odd jobs: ice cream truck driver, mover, gas station attendant. He even sold newspapers in the toll lane of the Triborough Bridge. When Buscemi turned 18, his father, a sanitation worker, encouraged his son to take the civil service exam and become a New York City firefighter. Four years later, in 1980, the future star became a member of Engine Co. 55, located in New York City's Little Italy district. While he answered emergency calls during the day, at night Buscemi played improv clubs and auditioned for acting roles.

After four years working for the FDNY, Buscemi landed one of the lead roles in Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances (1986), a drama set during the early days of AIDS in New York. Buscemi took a three-month leave of absence during filming, and afterwards decided not to return.

3. HE FORMED A COMEDY DUO WITH SONS OF ANARCHY’S MARK BOONE, JR.

For a brief while, Buscemi tried his hand at stand-up comedy (he bombed). In 1984, he met fellow aspiring actor Mark Boone, Jr., and the two began performing together. Part improv, part scripted comedy, the two would often carry out power struggles that pitted thin-man Buscemi against the larger Boone. The New York Times called their act “theater in the absurdist vein.”

4. HE DID NOT AUDITION FOR THE ROLE OF GEORGE COSTANZA.

Like any hard-working actor, Buscemi has had his share of failed auditions. His tryout for Alan Parker’s Fame lasted less than 30 seconds. In the late ‘80s, Martin Scorsese brought him in four different times to read for The Last Temptation of Christ. (Buscemi ended up reading every apostle’s part before being turned away.) He also auditioned for the part of Seinfeld’s George Costanza—at least according to numerous sources, including Jason Alexander himself. But it turns out this tidbit—fueled, no doubt, by the thought of a very twitchy, bug-eyed Costanza—isn’t true. On a recent episode of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Buscemi addressed the rumor in his typical good-natured way: “I never did [the audition] and I don’t know how to correct it because I don’t know how the Internet works.”

5. TREES LOUNGE WAS BASICALLY HIS LIFE AT 19.

After gaining momentum with roles in Mystery Train, Reservoir Dogs, Barton Fink, and other films, Buscemi took a turn behind the camera with 1996’s Trees Lounge. The movie, which he also wrote, follows a bumbling layabout named Tommy who spends most of his time at the title bar in the town where he grew up. It’s a classic flick for Buscemi fans and, according to the actor, it was pretty much his life as a teenager living on Long Island. “I was truly directionless, living with my parents,” Buscemi said in an interview. “I was driving an ice-cream truck and working at a gas station… The drinking age was 18 then, so I spent every night hanging out with my friends in bars, drinking.”

6. HE IS FULLY AWARE THAT HIS CHARACTERS OFTEN DIE.

Steve Buscemi in 'Fargo' (1996)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

He’s been shot numerous times, stabbed with an ice pick, riddled with throwing knives, tossed off a balcony, and fed to a wood chipper. Yes, Buscemi’s characters have died a variety of deaths, and the actor isn’t without a sense of humor about the whole matter. He’ll often joke in interviews that he’s living longer and longer as the years go by. Before the 2005 release of The Island, in which the aforementioned balcony-tossing occurs (and into a glass bar no less), Buscemi said he was happy his character lived almost a third of the way through the movie. Buscemi admitted that he will actually read ahead in any script he receives to see when and how he dies.

7. HE HAS A FAVORITE DEATH—AND IT ISN’T FARGO.

For connoisseurs of Buscemi's movie deaths, the demise of Fargo’s Carl Showalter by way of axe then wood chipper is the crème de la crème. But when asked about his own favorite onscreen death, Buscemi references another Coen brothers film: The Big Lebowski. In that movie his character, Donny Kerabatsos, succumbs to a heart attack. It’s a surprise for viewers, and so out-of-the-blue that Buscemi can’t help but be tickled at the randomness of it. “They thought, ‘Well, Buscemi’s in it, so we’ve gotta kill him,'" the actor said in an appearance on The Daily Show.

8. HIS CHARACTER IN CON AIR WAS WRITTEN SPECIFICALLY FOR HIM.

In Con Air, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced action movie filled with muscled-up prisoners, Buscemi played the most dangerous con of them all. His Garland Greene—a serial killer whose exploits “make the Manson family look like the Partridge family,” according to one character—enters the film strapped to a chair, Hannibal Lecter mask affixed to his face. Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg, a friend of Buscemi’s, wrote the part with him in mind, and was tickled when Buscemi accepted the role. To this day, fans will still serenade the actor with “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

9. HIS CHARACTER IN DESPERADO IS NAMED AFTER HIM.

Steve Buscemi in Desperado
Columbia Pictures

Although he inevitably dies (courtesy of Danny Trejo’s throwing knives), Buscemi commands the opening of Desperado, Robert Rodriguez’s stylish revenge movie, regaling bar patrons with the story of the title gunslinger, played by Antonio Banderas. Because his character’s name is never mentioned, Rodriguez decided to have some fun and name him "Buscemi" in the credits.

10. HE WON’T FIX HIS TEETH.

Buscemi’s crooked smile has helped him portray lowlifes and losers throughout his career. Dentists have offered to fix the actor’s teeth, but he always turns them down, knowing how valuable those chompers are to the Buscemi brand. In a guest starring role on The Simpsons, Buscemi poked fun at the matter after a dentist offers to straighten his character’s teeth: “You’re going to kill my livelihood if you do that!”

11. THERE’S SOME CONFUSION OVER HOW TO PRONOUNCE HIS LAST NAME.

Many people pronounce his last name “Boo-shemmy,” but it turns out Buscemi himself pronounces it “Boo-semmy.” In interviews, Buscemi says he’s following his father’s pronunciation, and says he doesn’t begrudge anyone who says it differently. It turns out, though, that his fans have it right—or at least mostly right. On a trip to Sicily to visit family, Buscemi recounted recently on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, he noticed everyone saying “Boo-SHAY-me.”

12. HE GOT STABBED IN A BAR FIGHT.

Steve Buscemi in 'Trees Lounge' (1996)
Live Entertainment

On April 12th, 2001, while filming Domestic Disturbance in Wilmington, North Carolina, Buscemi, co-star Vince Vaughn, and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg went out for late night drinks at the Firebelly Lounge. After Vaughn traded insults with another patron (whose girlfriend had apparently been flirting with Vaughn), the two stepped outside, and a brief scuffle ensued before the two were separated. Buscemi, who was among the crowd that had gathered, was then confronted by a man who, after a brief exchange, attacked the actor with a pocketknife. Buscemi suffered stab wounds to his face, throat, and hands, and had to return to New York to recuperate. His attacker, Timothy Fogerty, was charged with assault with a deadly weapon. In typical good-guy fashion, Buscemi declined to press additional charges and instead insisted Fogerty enter a substance abuse program.

13. HE REJOINED HIS FIRE ENGINE IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

After the horrific attack on New York City’s Twin Towers on September 11, Buscemi—like many Americans—was desperate to help. Although it had been nearly 20 years since he had strapped on his fireman’s gear, the actor reunited with his Engine 55 brethren and for days scoured the towers’ debris for survivors. Buscemi didn’t want his actions publicized; when people asked to take his picture, he declined. It took more than 10 years, in fact, before word got out, thanks to a Facebook post from Engine 55. “Brother Steve worked 12-hour shifts alongside other firefighters digging and sifting through the rubble,” the post read. “This guy is a badass!”

14. HE NARRATES THE AUDIO TOUR AT EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY.

People who take a tour of the historic Philadelphia prison may notice a familiar voice coming through their listening device. So how did Buscemi end up lending his talents to such a seemingly obscure place? It turns out Eastern State is a popular location for film and photo shoots. Scenes from Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys were filmed there, as were album covers for artists like Tina Turner. In 2000, Buscemi scouted the penitentiary for a film project. The location didn’t work out, but the actor fell in love with the history and grand architecture of the 190-year-old prison. When officials asked for his help to celebrate the prison’s tenth year running tours, he agreed.

15. HE DIDN’T BELIEVE TERENCE WINTER WHEN HE OFFERED HIM THE LEAD IN BOARDWALK EMPIRE.


HBO

After years of playing disposable villains and losers on the periphery, Buscemi had grown accustomed to being passed over for leading roles. So when Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter offered him the part of corrupt politician Enoch “Nucky” Thompson in the award-winning HBO series, Buscemi offered his usual reply. “When Terry did call me and he said that he and Marty [Scorsese] wanted me to play this role, my response was, ‘Terry, I know you’re looking at other actors, and I just appreciate that my name is being thrown in,’" Buscemi recalled. "He said, ‘No, Steve, I just said we want you.’ It still didn’t sink in.” Eventually, of course, reality did sink in, and Buscemi went on to win a Golden Globe and Emmy Award across the show’s five seasons.

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