Former “Seinfeld” star Jason Alexander packed the house at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts for Friday night’s opening of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, proving that, in the words of the philosopher George Costanza, he still has cachet up the yin-yang.
After navigating the red carpet and its attendant horde of media and autograph seekers (armed with Sharpies and short stacks of “Seinfeld” photography), Alexander took the Amaturo Theater stage to a standing ovation in front of more than 500 people, including his 94-year-old mother, Ruth, of Coconut Creek. As a prelude to the FLIFF screening of his new film, the screwball musical comedy “Lucky Stiff,” Alexander accepted what he said was his first career-achievement award.
“I’m not sure what it means for my career that [the award] is sponsored by a doctor and a cemetery,” Alexander said, acknowledging two FLIFF underwriters to a rumble of laughter.
The best symbol of Alexander’s acting skill may be the man himself: Quick-witted, articulate, trim and radiating an oddly stylish and healthful glow (please let it not be the fact that he quit coffee three months ago), he is the anti-Costanza.
“Lucky Stiff,” which will get a second FLIFF screening Monday at Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood, is a vivid example of the dichotomy of Jason Alexander, a beloved character actor with a Tony Award-winning song-and-dance man always struggling to get out.
Under a comically uncooperative comb-over toupee, Alexander plays a bumbling New Jersey optometrist entangled by his conniving and cleavaged sister (Pamela Shaw) in a 1970s-set caper involving the mob and a stash of diamonds. Other stars include British actor Dominic Marsh, Tony winner Nikki M. James and the late Dennis Farina, in his last film.
Based on an off-Broadway play, with engaging songs and eye-popping art direction (director Christopher Ashley said he was inspired by movies such as “What’s Up, Doc” and “The Pink Panther”), “Lucky Stiff” is a zany little zig in Alexander’s zig-zag career. And it may be a revelation for those who have not heard him sing.
A SHINY OBJECT
Relaxing at the Broward Center earlier in the evening, Alexander says his background in acting, singing, writing and directing make him “a good, useful guy.” But it also makes it difficult to stick to any semblance of a blueprint for his career. Which is just fine, he says.
“I have the good fortune of being able to do a variety of things,” Alexander says. “I have a few [projects] that I try to push up a hill, but more often than not somebody has a shiny object and they jingle it and they go, ‘Look what I have,’ and I’ll go, ‘Ha, I’ll do that!’ And that’s how you make choices. You just hope the things that are being dangled are worthwhile.”
Despite the small-budget, indie nature of "Lucky Stiff," Alexander says he was intrigued by working with Ashley on a project that included Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics). The FLIFF screening that night would be the first time he saw the film in its entirety.
“I have always loved doing material that my kids could go see,” says Alexander, father of sons now 23 and 18. “And I love movie musicals. So it was very exciting to be asked. I think I was an easy ‘yes.’”
Some critics may view his scenes with Shaw, all the more statuesque for the stable of high heels she wears, as part Boris and Natasha and part George and Kramer. Alexander won’t fight it.
“Well, the world is ‘Seinfeld,’ what can you say? Eventually it all reduces back to that,” he says.
ALEXANDER THE SINGER
Alexander has spent much of the year singing with symphonies, including the Boston Pops at Tanglewood, Houston Symphony and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. His sets have ranged from “The Music Man” to the Piano Man, Billy Joel. Alexander says his parents first dragged him to the theater at age 5, but he credits the record collection of his sister, Karen, with refining his evolving taste in music.
“She didn’t have the Beatles and the Stones and the Who. She had ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘The Fantasticks’,” he says. “And I thought that was the greatest music in the world.”
Alexander says that with two working parents, he spent a lot of time alone listening to that music, plus his own playlist: comedy albums by Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, “Fireside Theater,” Spike Jones and Allen Sherman.
The 55-year-old Alexander recently returned to comedy with the one-man show “An Evening With Jason Alexander … and His Hair.” He expects to bring it to South Florida in February, when his mother turns 95.
While many of the filmmakers and directors in town for FLIFF's opening festivities were booked at Fort Lauderdale’s Riverside Hotel for the weekend, Alexander stayed at his mom’s house, where he has his own room and the “shrine” his mother has assembled for his accolades will soon include prominent display of FLIFF’s career-achievement award.
During the award ceremony, Alexander's mother stood for an enthusiastic round of applause, at which time her son noted her "freaky" physical resemblance to his "Seinfeld" mother (played by Estelle Harris). Unlike George Costanza, Alexander is all too happy to come to his mom's rescue: He spent part of his Thursday rewiring the sound system so his mother could hear the TV from her bed.
“She air-conditions the house at 82, so it’s always a thrill,” he says, laughing. ”But my mother’s extraordinary. She’s going to be 95, she’s sharp as a tack. She continues to amaze me all the time.”
IF YOU GO
The Fort Lauderdale International Film Festvial continues through Nov. 23, screening more than 175 films at theaters in Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, Sunrise and Miramar. “Lucky Stiff” will screen at 8:45 p.m. Monday, Nov. 10, at Cinema Paradiso Hollywood (2008 Hollywood Blvd.). Tickets: $10, $8 for seniors and students. Info: 954-525-3456, FLIFF.com.