seinfeld's julia louis-dreyfus -- 4/19/18
Today's encore selection -- from Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. The pilot for Jerry Seinfeld's new sitcom tested poorly and did not include a woman in the ensemble -- just Jerry, George and Kramer. When NBC, which considered canceling the series, ordered four more episodes, they suggested adding a stronger female presence:
"The network did ... emphatically suggest a stronger female presence when it ordered more episodes. The network executives wanted a woman on par with George and Kramer. The producers considered TV regulars Patricia Heaton and Megan Mullally, as well as stand-up turned actress Rosie O'Donnell, for the job. None of them quite did it for the Seinfeld producers.
"But Julia Louis-Dreyfus had a contract at Warner Brothers that was about to expire, and [Seinfeld co-creator Larry] David had a personal connection to her from their working together on Saturday Night Live in 1982. The day after she got out of the deal, David threw her name into contention. She got the four Seinfeld scripts via her agent. She would have preferred a bigger part, but she loved the scripts' writing.
"Louis-Dreyfus had comedy chops and a sexiness that wasn't overbearing -- tons of dark curls, huge brown eyes. Like David, she had barely survived her SNL time, though she endured three seasons to his one. And she'd had a good excuse for being eaten alive: She joined at twenty-one, the youngest female cast member in the show's history at the time. She had struggled to hold her own against a powerhouse cast that included Eddie Murphy, Martin Short, Christopher Guest, Billy Crystal, and Joe Piscopo. She was shocked to find a cutthroat atmosphere instead of the ensemble energy she'd experienced doing improv in college, but she endured, if only just.
"She and David had bonded in their misery at SNL. When David asked her to audition for his new Seinfeld character, she agreed partly because of her connection to him. Once she walked in, David and Seinfeld knew, for the first time, who Elaine Benes was. Louis-Dreyfus understood the New York sensibility, having been born in the city. She spent some of her childhood there, but she brought a worldly perspective as well. She'd lived in Washington, DC; Sri Lanka; Colombia; and Tunisia because of her stepfather's medical charity work.
"Louis-Dreyfus had grown up, in fact, quite comfortably: Her father, William Louis-Dreyfus, ran a billion-dollar commodities firm called the Louis Dreyfus Group. As she traveled the world with her mother and stepfather, and her father made major financial deals, she dreamed of being Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Madeline Kahn, Teri Garr, or Diane Keaton. She loved filmmaker Preston Sturges's funny, sexy heroines.
"Her parents wouldn't allow her to pursue acting as a child, so she waited until she went to Northwestern University in Chicago, where she met her husband, fellow actor Brad Hall (an early candidate to play George Costanza), and got spotted in a comedy revue by Saturday Night Live producers. She left Northwestern before graduating; she and Hall both appeared on SNL for three seasons, from 1982 to 1985, then moved to Los Angeles.
"When Louis-Dreyfus arrived for her Seinfeld audition, she found Jerry eating cereal and waiting to trade lines with her. She saw Larry at the audition and felt at ease, a Pavlovian response to the presence of the one bright spot from her most miserable years. She sat on a sofa with Seinfeld and read lines. When Seinfeld heard her read, he thought she'd mesh well with George and Kramer. 'That,' he told his colleagues afterward, 'is Elaine.' She would, David later said, give the show 'luster.'
"After her audition ended, Louis-Dreyfus left, and David ran out onto the sidewalk after her. 'What do you think?' he asked.
" 'I don't know,' she said honestly. The even more honest version would have been: I'm not sure if this is the right move for me.
"But in the end, she accepted David and Seinfeld's offer to join the four-episode 'special' series, as an NBC press release categorized it. Her hard time at Saturday Night Live had paid off, though she didn't know yet how much. She figured this thing would get canceled in a week, but it beat her recent film projects, such as the self-explanatory Troll.
"When she showed up on the set in cowboy boots, [Michael] Richards [who played Kramer] knew: Oh, yes, this is our girl."
From SEINFELDIA by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. Copyright 2016 by Jennifer Armstrong. Reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.