JASON ALEXANDER has always been a master of self-deprecating humor. Born Jay Greenspan in New Jersey, he was a stubby, roly-poly child who wielded his sense of humor as a defensive measure against the merciless teasing of other kids acting was the easiest way to fit in.
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His stage hair debut, in a fourth-grade play in which he was cast as a Nordic explorer, was memorable, if not exactly auspicious: he was such a bundle of nerves that he vomited on stage, but at least he managed to deliver all his lines before making a queasy exit.
A lesser child would have bagged acting altogether after that kind of demoralizing experience, but not Jay. He had visions of Ben Vereen dancing in his head, and his dreams of one day being a Tony Award-winning song-and-dance man on Broadway would not be easily abandonedùafter all, he had been warbling the scores from Fiddler on the Roof and Man of La Mancha since the age of five in preparation. In a stroke of brilliance, he convinced his parents to pay for voice lessons by saying that they would be great practice for his bar mitzvah.
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At thirteen, he badgered them into paying for a series of tap-dancing lessons given by two eighty-year-old former Ziegfeld girls. He was well on his way.
Throughout his years at Livingston High School, Greenspan appeared in school theatrical productions. So serious was he about pursuing a career in musical theater that by the age of fifteen he had adopted the marquee-worthy moniker of Jason Alexander. His talent budded at approximately the same rate as he began to lose his hair: “I had braces for nine years, I got them off when I was seventeen, and I went, ‘Yeah!’ And when I was eighteen, I started losing my hair. I never had one good year. I said, ‘Let me have one year where I’m a little thin, I’m in my youth, and I look great.’ I never had that good year,” he has commented of his follicularly challenged state. Despite his stocky stature and rapidly receding hairlineùor perhaps because of themùhis high-school theatrics were so favorably acknowledged that he was awarded a scholarship to the School of Fine Arts at Boston University. Alexander bailed out on his studies after two years to accept a role in the deplorable slasher flick The Burning (1981), and one in the innocuous made-for-TV movie Senior Trip. That same year, he scored a major coup when he won the lead role in a Broadway production of the Stephen Sondheim/George Furth musical Merrily We Roll Alongùinstead of making the diminutive actor an overnight star, the seemingly providential show turned out to be a stinker and closed after two weeks.
Alexander went on to star in more successful productions, ones with less ephemeral runs: though it was critically reviled, the Chita Rivera-Liza Minnelli vehicle The Rink (1984), in which Alexander shouldered four parts, had a comparatively healthy nine-month run; he created the role of Stanley in Neil Simon’s autobiographical play Broadway Bound during the 1986-1987 season; he scored the 1989 Tony for Best Actor in a Musical for his phenomenal multi-part performance in the Broadway revue Jerome Robbins’s Broadway (he also earned a Grammy for the television version). His Tevye the milkman from Fiddler on the Roof and his Pseudolus from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum further upped his stock on the Great White Way. Alexander’s success on the big and small screens was a bit slower in taking off, but was nonetheless promising. He earned his second feature roleùthat of a hardware-store clerkùin Peter Weir’s Mosquito Coast in 1986, and 1990 witnessed him in fine supporting form in Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder and in the monstrously popular modern-day Cinderella story Pretty Woman. Appearances in recurring roles in the quickly euthanized sitcoms E/R (1984-1985) and Everything’s Relative (1987), and a starring turn in the NBC miniseries Favorite Son (1988), did little to prepare Alexander for the small-screen success that was soon to be his.
Riding high on the buzz surrounding his Tony-winning performance in Jerome Robbins’s Broadway, Alexander headed out to California for what he assumed would be a dead-end job, filming a television pilot for a sitcom called The Seinfeld Chronicles. He was cast in the role of kvetching, commitment-fearing loser George Costanza, one of several oddball foils to the series’ star (and producer and co-creator), comedian Jerry Seinfeld. As history notes, Seinfeldùas the series came to be calledùbarely blipped on the radar following its 1990 debut, but its quirky, manic, neurotic appeal caught on within a few seasons, and its small, but loyal, core audience expanded to include just about the entire TV-viewing world. The Emmy-bedecked series shot to the top of the ratings; and after going into syndication in 1994, its success was all that much sweeter, its audience, all that much bigger. That same year, Alexander began voicing Duckman, the web-footed, oversexed private-eye hero of the animated USA cable network show of the same name. Work as a voice actor has become a healthy career adjunct for Alexander ever since his involvement in the ABC puppet series Dinosaurs in 1991: he has also supplied diction for the TV series Aladdin (1993) and for the gargoyle Hugo in the animated feature The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). He’ll next lend his noteworthy pipes to Hercules: The Wonder Boy Years.
Though he will forever be inextricably linked to pudgy, pesky George Costanza in our minds, Alexander’s film career has been gaining momentum of late and will likely continue to do so. His smallish supporting roles in such films as The Paper (1994), North (1994), The Last Supper, and Dunston Checks In (1996) have yielded meatier starring roles in his directorial debut effort For Better or Worse (1996) and in the ensemble cast of Love! Valour! Compassion! (1997), an adaptation of Terrence McNally’s Tony-winning play about a group of gay couples who spend their holidays together in the New York countryside. In the latter film, Alexander portrayed an AIDS-afflicted musical-loving queen named Buzz, a role originated by Nathan Lane (The Birdcage) on Broadway.
Alexander next joins the all-star cameo casts of Run, Buddy, Run, which is about television tabloid shows, and Mom’s up on the Roof, which is about a group of actors all vying for the same role in a Martin Scorsese film. More substantial opportunities for the feverishly energetic actor include a film about the real-life story of a man who could communicate with horses (a plot similar to that of Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer) and another about a white supremacist who renounces his racist dogma; he has also been mentioned for a role in Leisure Suit Larry, an adaptation of a CD-ROM game about a sex-crazed guy whose fashion sense and pick-up lines owe a monumental debt to seventies sensibilities. Most challenging of all, certainly, will be Office Bob, a movie about an imbecile who becomes a policeman that Alexander will both star in and produce.