The Story Behind Susan’s Death on Seinfeld

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Photo-Illustration: Getty Images

Last year, Jason Alexander spoke about why George Costanza's fiancée, Susan, was killed off on Seinfeld. In her book, Seinfeldia, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong gives the full story behind the character's death by envelopes. We've excerpted it below — for more behind-the-scenes stories from Seinfeld, listen to the latest edition of the Vulture TV Podcast with Armstrong. Tune in to the Vulture TV Podcast, produced by the Slate Group’s Panoply, every Tuesday, on iTunes or SoundCloud.

In the summer of 1995, Larry David called Jason Alexander. “We’ve got a great arc for George,” he said. “He’s going to get engaged.”

“To what character?”

“Susan.”

“Who’s playing Susan?” Alexander asked, though surely he knew.

“Heidi.”

“Who’s playing George?” Alexander cracked.

Alexander and Heidi Swedberg, who played George’s ex, never worked on the same wavelength. While Alexander found it easy to play off of his regular costars, he always felt like he was fighting Swedberg in their shared scenes, even though he liked her as a person offscreen. He found her comic instincts to be “the complete opposite” of his own. “I always felt like I was punching into Jell-O,” he later said. He’d do something in a scene with her, and it would fall flat. So in the next take, he’d do something else, and then David would tell him to go back to the original choice. Then in the next take, Swedberg would do something totally different. Alexander couldn’t win.

“Don’t you understand how perfect she is for you?” David continued. “You’ve driven her to lesbianism. You burned her father’s shack down. You’ve practically shit on her, and nobody feels bad for her. They’re all on your side. She’s the greatest foil for you.”

True enough, her character had been through even more than that thanks to George and his friends. Kramer threw up on her. She lost her job at NBC when George kissed her mid-meeting. Kramer stole her girlfriend.

Swedberg saw her role on the show as being the straight woman to the insanity. Susan was the stiffest of the stiff, unlike Swedberg herself, who rebelled against her uptight upbringing by threatening to join the circus when she was a kid in Albuquerque. Instead, she became an actress, took up the ukulele, and bought an Airstream trailer for her and her husband to hang out in—and keep in the yard at their Los Angeles home.

Her girl-next-door looks had gotten her onetime guest spots on shows such as Matlock, Grace Under Fire, and Murder, She Wrote. Eventually, those all-American looks also got her what was originally a bit part on Seinfeld as one of a group of fictional NBC executives who take George and Jerry’s pitch for a sitcom. George’s throwaway line that she had seemed to like him inspired producers to bring her back several times as George’s on-again, off-again love interest. As a coworker on the set, Swedberg was an unassuming professional who caused neither trouble nor spectacle. She’d do her scenes, then retreat to a corner to read a book until she was needed again.

Now, Susan and George were the closest Seinfeld had ever gotten to a stable couple.

David had no idea where the plotline would end, but he was committed to seeing it through. About halfway through the next season, an episode required Jerry and Elaine to hang out with Susan, the first time either Seinfeld or Louis-Dreyfus had to work extensively with Swedberg. After the taping, the four lead actors gathered with David at Jerry’s Famous Deli in Studio City, as usual.

“You know, it’s hard to figure out where to go with what she gives you,” Seinfeld said.

“Don’t even talk to me,” Alexander snapped. “I don’t want to hear your bullshit.”

Louis-Dreyfus added, “I just want to kill her.”

And David said, “Wait a minute.”

The conversation led to what Alexander called “the single coldest moment in the history of television”: when Susan’s death is met with what could generously be called an apathetic shrug . . . from her own fiancé. Warren Littlefield saw it as “the boldest comedy move I had ever seen,” even though his kids’ pediatrician wouldn’t talk to him afterward.

One hopes this was as distant as George Costanza could get from his real-life inspiration, Larry David. “It would have been dishonest to make him upset, and that’s why it’s funny,” David said afterward. “Somebody showed me something in some magazine where they wrote that this was a ‘fuck you’ to the network. Why would I do something like that? Why a fuck you, when all they did was let me do whatever I wanted for seven years?”

From Seinfeldia by Jennifer Armstrong.  Copyright © 2016 by Jennifer Armstrong.  Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.  All rights reserved.