' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Liz Sheridan

Thursday, April 21, 2022

In Memoriam: Liz Sheridan

They’re all gone now, all the actors who played the parents to “Seinfeld’s” illustrious quartet. Lawrence Tierney (Alton Benes), Sheree North (Babs Kramer), Barney Martin (Morty Seinfeld), Jerry Stiller (Frank Costanza), Estelle Harris (Estelle Costanza), and now less than two weeks after Harris died at the age of 93, Liz Sheridan (Helen Seinfeld) has died at the age of 93 too. She went peacefully in her sleep. May we all be so lucky. That Sheridan lived so long is apropos given the full life she led. She dated James Dean, for God’s sake, and wrote a book about it, lived and worked for a decade in the Caribbean, both on St. Thomas and Puerto Rico, as a nightclub singer and dancer. I always felt a little let down that “Seinfeld” failed to utilize her real-life backstory by having Helen Seinfeld run a cabaret in Phase II in The Pines of Mar Gables.

Once Sheridan returned to the States, she found consistent work on TV, guest starring in nearly every 1980s show that anyone who watched them on a Zenith Chromacolor will no doubt recall: “St. Elsewhere”; “Scarecrow and Mrs. King”; “Newhart”; “Moonlighting”; “Family Ties”; “The A-Team”; “Who’s the Boss”; “Cagney and Lacey”; “Empty Nest”; “Hill Street Blues”; “ALF.” The latter was a recurring role, foreshadowing the recurring role to come the same year “ALF” ended, in the second episode of “Seinfeld” (which was spiritually really the first, being the retooled version after the Elaine-less “The Seinfeld Chronicles” pilot in 1989). Because Jerry’s dad was portrayed by a different actor in that episode (Philip Bruns), it meant Sheridan was the only actor playing a parent to appear in all nine seasons, which proved appropriate.

Sheridan more than kept pace with the show’s sometimes screwball patter and delivered withering putdowns demonstrating that Jerry was really just a chip off the old block. But what she really did was keep it real. Frank and Estelle Costanza were often written larger than life and performed that way, while Morty Seinfeld reflected the somewhat unfortunate aesthetic arc of the show over its nine seasons, from leisurely and dyspeptic to freewheeling and cartoonish. Sheridan, though, always maintained one foot in that original world, maybe because she had been there longer than anyone. The way she admonishes Jerry for making his father too excited in Season 9 felt no different than the way she admonished Jerry for claiming a softball game was the greatest moment of his life in Season 2. There was always something familiar and lived-in about Sheridan’s work. The more absurd the social decorum of her Florida retirement community, the more genuine she rendered it. And in the big 1994 “Schindler’s List” make-out session episode, when Helen was delightfully charged with delivering Jerry’s famed greeting to his despised mailman neighbor – “Hello, Newman” – Sheridan did not simply recite it as an inside joke among the show’s fans. She infused it with an invisible backstory, like she, Helen Seinfeld, held as much long-running animosity with Newman as her son. (Seinfeld’s delivery of “Newman” was always curt but Sheridan really drew that “Newman” out, letting this steam of exasperation rise off of it.) Or perhaps that was just maternal instinct.

If Estelle had essentially given up on George, Helen only ever saw the best in Jerry, and despite occasionally critiquing his dating habits she treated him like she was dropping him off on the first day of school. When Helen discovers her son has become the sworn enemy of Joe Davola in Season 4, Sheridan does not play the moment scared or stunned but disbelieving and outraged. “You’re a wonderful, wonderful boy,” she decrees in a voice with no room for equivocation. “Everybody likes you. It’s impossible not to like you. Impossible.” In Season 6 when Jerry gets fleas and has to find another place for his parents to stay, another show might have turned this into a moment of sputtering explanation from the lead. Here, however, as Helen enters the apartment to greet her son, Sheridan has Helen stop short of even hugging her son, putting a hand to his chest, evincing a motherly sixth sense. When he tries to beg off, she is not having it, reminding him “Jerry, I’m your mother.” There has never been a truer evocation of the emotional homing beacon every mom attaches to her child at birth. 

No comments: