When George Costanza’s father, Frank, is introduced in Season 4 of Seinfeld, he is a typically world-weary sitcom dad played by the theater veteran John Randolph. Hen-pecked by his wife, he reacts to his son’s antics with little more than a sigh; the only indication of sublimated rage comes in a scene where he smacks his son on the forehead in frustration. The role of Frank was recast in Season 5 with Jerry Stiller, who quickly noticed that the character wasn’t clicking. “After a couple of days, I realized that acting meek was going to get me fired … On the fourth day, I said to [the Seinfeld co-creator] Larry David, ‘This ain’t workin’. Can I do it my way?’” Stiller recalled in an interview. “The next time Jason [Alexander, who played George] said, ‘Dad, can I have the keys to the car?’ Bang! I gave him this whack. Everybody screamed.”
With that chaotic scene, which had been workshopped ahead of time with Alexander, an icon of American crankiness was born. Frank Costanza was the crowning role in a storied career that ended yesterday with Stiller’s death at the age of 92—and it’s the role that arguably most resonated with audiences. The other characters of Seinfeld obsessed over minute details, complained about life’s modern conveniences, and spent episode after episode twiddling their lives away in glamorous Manhattan. As played by Stiller, Frank was their hilariously cantankerous counterbalance, unafraid to yell in people’s faces, challenge them to fist fights, and invent whole holidays devoted to airing his grievances about the world.