It was classic Seinfeld dark humor—but darker than most. George, Kramer, Jerry, and Elaine wait in the hospital for news about George’s fiancee, Susan.
“I’m sorry,” the doctor says to George. “She’s gone.”
The camera cuts to George and there’s a long pause. “What’s that?” he asks as the laugh track cuts in.
“She expired.” “Are you sure?” Louder laughs. “Yes, of course!” “So, she’s dead?” More laughs. “Yes.” “Huh.” “Let me ask you. Had she been exposed to any kind of inexpensive glue?” Uproarious chuckles.
Susan, of course, died from licking the cheap envelopes George picked for their wedding invitations. It was the final bit of cruelty (funny as it may have been) inflicted on the character. In Season Four, when Susan and George begin dating, Kramer vomits on her and then burns her family’s cabin down. George gets her fired, which leads to her breaking up with him. Then they get back together, but George immediately feels trapped so he pretends to pick his nose so she’ll break up with him. When Susan is finally in a happy relationship with a woman, the woman leaves Susan to date Kramer, who is just in it for the free tennis lessons. In Season Seven, they’re reunited when George proposes, but he spends the entire season scheming ways to get out of the relationship until her death in the season finale. Through it all, Kramer could never be bothered to remember Susan’s name—he called her Lily even when he found out she’d died.
For 28 episodes over five years, the writers tortured poor Susan, which made her the consummate partner for sad sack George. But in the real world, the cast didn’t like the actress much more than their fictional counterparts. In fact, it was Julia Louis-Dreyfus who suggested killing off the character after finding actress Heidi Swedberg hard to work with, according to interviews with Alexander over the years. But Swedberg has been left out of the conversation completely. She hasn’t spoken publicly about Seinfeld since she was written off the show, and she’s since left Hollywood behind completely. I spent days trying to track Swedberg down to hear her side of the story, because it’s been three decades since the premiere of Seinfeld—and it’s time the show’s most tragic character gets a much-deserved second look.
Swedberg’s stint on Seinfeld was part of a two-decade acting career. Before the show about nothing, she had guest spots on Murder She Wrote and Grace Under Fire and afterwards she had small roles on Gilmore Girls and Wizards of Waverly Place.
In 1992, she was cast for one of her longest-running roles: George Constanza’s girlfriend Susan Ross. Shortly after she joined the NBC show, a Los Angeles Times reporter caught the new actress in one of her first rehearsals. In the scene, George and Susan are supposed to be in a car and she is scolding him for driving too fast.
From the LATimes:
Turning away from the script, [Swedberg] says, “It’s like I’m talking to a dog.”
“You are,” director Tom Cherones blurts. “You’re talking to a bad dog.”
“Welcome to the world of ‘Seinfeld,’ ” Alexander responds.
Years after the show ended its run in 1998, Alexander told Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of the book Seinfeldia, that he found Swedberg’s comic instincts to be “the complete opposite” of his own. “I always felt like I was punching into Jell-O,” he said.
The actor reiterated the point in a 2015 interview on the Howard Stern Show saying, “I couldn’t figure out how to play off of her. Her instincts for doing a scene, where the comedy was, and mine were always misfiring. And she would do something, and I would go, ‘OK, I see what she’s going to do—I’m going to adjust to her.’ And I’d adjust, and then it would change.”
Before the show’s seventh season, Seinfeld co-creator Larry David called Alexander to tell him his character was getting married—Alexander was thrilled about the story arc until he found out who his fiancee would be. When he was told it was Susan, his response was, “Great! Who’s playing George? Because it was such a disaster.”
David assured Alexander that Susan was the perfect match for George—and, in many ways, she was. George only decides to marry Susan after making a deal with Jerry that they’d both get married. After Jerry backs out of the deal, George is still left betrothed to Susan. Newly engaged, nearly every word out of Susan’s mouth irks George. Looking back now, knowing Alexander’s frustrations at having to act across from Swedberg, his resentment seems to ooze into the performance.
In one scene, Susan is simply cuddling with George while they watch Mad About You and George’s face is locked into an expression of disgust. It’s awkward—and hilarious. Easily irritable George was always the funniest when he was upset.
“What Heidi brought to the character is you could do the most horrible things to her and the audience was still on your side,” David said, according to Alexander. “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.”
In Seinfeldia, Swedberg is described as an “unassuming professional who caused neither trouble nor spectacle.” She saw her role as the straight woman to the quirky cast of characters. She would do her scenes, then head off to a corner to read a book until she was called upon again.
David and the show’s stars would have dinner together after wrapping episodes, and Alexander spent the season complaining about his scenes with Swedberg. In the Stern interview, he says none of them were sympathetic because most of his scenes with her were on-on-one. But after a series of episodes in which Jerry Seinfeld and Louis-Dreyfus shared scenes with Swedberg, they agreed with Alexander.
“They go, ‘You know what? It’s fucking impossible. It’s impossible,'” Alexander said on the Howard Stern Show. “And Julia actually said, ‘Don’t you want to just kill her?’ And Larry went, ‘Ka-bang!'”
And so goes the story of how Susan came to be killed off by licking the tainted envelopes. NBC executive Warren Littlefield called it, “the boldest comedy move I’ve ever seen” in the book Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must-See TV. After the characters’ cold response to Susan’s death aired on his network, Littlefield’s children’s pediatrician wouldn’t speak to him.
After telling the story of Susan’s death to Stern, Alexander tweeted a note saying, “[Swedberg] was generous and gracious, and I am so mad at myself for retelling this story in any way that would diminish her. If I had had more maturity or more security in my own work, I surely would have taken her query and possibly tried to adjust the scenes with her. She surely offered. But, I didn’t have that maturity or security.”
Now that we know why Swedberg was written off the show—and have the benefit of 30 years hindsight—it’s time to look back at how her performance was ideal for this show. And how the character of Susan brought out the worst—and funniest—in George. It’s time to give her the credit she deserves.
George was admittedly pathetic while Susan was smart and ambitious, an accomplished professional when they met. She is an NBC executive when George and Jerry pitch their show, and they quietly start dating. But, instead of respecting Susan’s career, George kisses her in a meeting resulting in her getting fired. This leads to Susan breaking up with him—yes, she wants to end the relationship so she ends it. When George goes back to her—and proposes!—she gives him another chance. She is patient and committed to their relationship while George selfishly schemes to get out of it instead of addressing their problems or just breaking up with her like an adult. Imagine being the humiliation of being Susan—planning your wedding while your fiance endlessly whines about you behind your back.
Susan comes from a wealthy family, so she comes off a bit haughty and serious, and Swedberg pulls it off perfectly. Her staidness and composure plays off the absurdity of George, Kramer, Elaine, and Jerry. Swedberg was the straight character so she wasn’t given punchlines—but whoever she was playing against was often gut-busting. As a foil, Swedberg let her castmates shine, playing up the funniest, most ridiculous aspects of their characters. Watch George pretend to smoke to get out of their relationship:
Susan is never one of the gang, and the hilariously awkward tension between her and the rest of the cast felt authentic—even if it was actual discomfort between the actors which was coming across. I have no idea what it was like to act with Swedberg. But I know, as a viewer, her episodes are an absolute delight to watch. So something was working.
Alexander’s apologetic and kind tweet is just a footnote in the stories about Swedberg being “fucking impossible.” So, we’re left mostly with a pile-up of criticism from actors much more famous about a guest star who was perfectly funny on-camera. The most gaping hole in the accounts is the lack of Swedberg’s voice. What was it like for her to come back onto the biggest show on network TV, thinking she was about to marry a main character, only to be killed off? Was Alexander’s frustration with having to act with her as obvious during scenes as it appears to be? How was she treated by the rest of the cast—and what was it like finding out why she was killed off?
Unfortunately, we may never know. Swedberg didn’t respond to multiple requests to comment for this story. And since her days as Susan, she’s left Hollywood behind completely.
Today, Swedberg teaches ukulele at schools and libraries around the country.
“Having children re-focused her life,” reads the biography on her website. “Singing and playing ukulele with them brought her so much joy that she found herself drifting away from auditions and into the classroom.”
The bio briefly mentions Swedberg’s acting career—but not her time on Seinfeld. In a short interview earlier this year with the Vancouver Sun, a reporter tells Swedberg audiences are excited for her to play at the 10th annual Vancouver Ukulele Festival because of her stint as Susan. To which Swedberg answers, “Why? It [Seinfeld] was 20 years ago!”
And in a 2014 profile in Ukulele magazine she says: “I don’t think acting is all that important. Not compared to music. For the most part, acting is just entertainment. I think there is some importance to the theater, but TV and all that? Come on! It doesn’t matter what monkey you hire for the job, it’s all going to work out.
“But music, music is a basic form of human communication. Music is essential in keeping us human, in keeping us connected—connected within our own culture, and connected to other cultures.”
Is she making a dig about the show about nothing? I couldn’t find an interview in which she’s ever mentioned the show by name. It seems she’s moved on. So, for now, we’re just left with Alexander’s side of the story—and 28 awkwardly hilarious Seinfeld episodes that are just as funny today as they were three decades ago.
Maybe Swedberg knew exactly what she was doing, after all.