Baseball fans are not the only ones remembering the antics of the larger-than-life owner of the New York Yankees, George Steinbrenner, who died in Tampa this morning of a sudden heart attack. He was 80.
‘Seinfeld‘ fans are also recalling the Steinbrenner character seen on that show – a “composite” figure who was one of the most unusual characters in the history of TV.
Think about it. Was there ever another character like this one? He was a figure based on a real-life person who was played by two people.
One was a little-known actor with few credits to his name – a man named Lee Bear – who played the physical Steinbrenner. You never heard Bear’s voice or saw his face. You saw only his back, his silver hair and his theatrical gestures as he would wave his arms and appear to lecture Yankee employee George Costanza (Jason Alexander) – “assistant to the traveling secretary” – on all kinds of subjects ranging from chocolate cupcakes and eggplant calzones to moving the Yankees to New Jersey “just to upset people.”
“I had heard they were looking for somebody who looked like George Steinbrenner, but I really wasn’t a baseball fan and I didn’t even know what George Steinbrenner looked like,” Bear, 74, recalled today on the phone from his home in North Hollywood, Calif. “I didn’t pay much attention to it and they called me because they thought I resembled him – not that that was important really because everything was done where you never saw my face. They didn’t figure they were going to have [the character] face the camera. They just picked me, I think, because they wanted a bigger guy. I’m 6 foot 4.” Bear said he wore a silver-haired toupee for the role.
The character’s raving, bombastic voice, of course, was provided by Larry David, the co-creator of ‘Seinfeld’ who himself appeared on the show only on the rarest of occasions, and always as a background character.
Watch the real Steinbrenner’s unaired cameo:
Bear explained how the character was created using two people. “When they first hatched this plan to use Steinbrenner, Larry started doing some dialogue and they said, ‘Why don’t we have you do the dialogue and get somebody else just to be on camera?’ ”
According to Wikipedia’s entry on George Steinbrenner, the character appeared in 13 episodes of ‘Seinfeld’: “The Opposite,” “The Secretary,” “The Race,” “The Jimmy,” “The Wink,” “The Hot Tub,” “The Caddy,” “The Calzone,” “The Bottle Deposit,” “The Nap,” “The Millennium,” “The Muffin Tops” and “The Finale.”
“Big Stein,” as the character enjoyed calling himself, enlivened every one of the episodes in which he appeared – so much so that you got the feeling that the only reason the ‘Seinfeld’ writers found George a job with the Yankees was because of the comic potential they foresaw for scenes in which the devious George would encounter the irrational Yankee boss.
The writers were correct, of course: The fictional “Steinbrenner” was certainly a broad caricature, even once worrying that he might catch “Lou Gehrig’s disease” from exposure to one of Gehrig’s jerseys.
In a conversation with Jerry on the show, George once described his boss this way: “No one knows what this guy’s capable of; he fires people like it’s a bodily function!”
Despite the buffoonish way in which he was portrayed, the real Steinbrenner was said to have enjoyed the portrayal. He even agreed at one point to appear personally on the show. He filmed three scenes for the finale of Season Seven, but the scenes were cut from the episode because the episode was running long. It was the infamous episode in which George’s fiancée, Susan (Heidi Swedberg), died from licking toxic wedding invitation envelopes that George had bought. Steinbrenner later said he didn’t approve of the death plotline anyway.
Though the scenes never made it into ‘Seinfeld,’ the real Steinbrenner’s trip to the West Coast to film the scenes brought him face to face with his alter ego, Lee Bear. “I met him then,” Bear recalled. “It was a very spirited meeting and we had a good laugh about the whole thing. He didn’t really say much. He said, ‘You’re a big guy! If I need some help to get that new stadium built, maybe I can use you!’ ”
Among the reasons why ‘Seinfeld’ was one of the greatest TV shows ever produced was its wealth of supporting characters. The Steinbrenner character was certainly one of these. Which supporting character on ‘Seinfeld’ did you like best?
Watch a memorable “Steinbrenner” rant: