Article Thumbnail

It’s Go Time! An Oral History of Izzy Mandelbaum, Seinfeld’s Octogenarian Macho Man

‘Seinfeld’ writers reflect on the elderly fitness king, one of the greatest characters on the show and the final television role of the iconic Lloyd Bridges

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.

At the beginning of 1997, you would have thought that 83-year-old Lloyd Bridges had already accomplished everything he was going to accomplish in Hollywood. He had appeared in more than 150 movies — such as Little Big Horn, High Noon and Airplane! — as well as had a successful career in television, where he starred in Sea Hunt and The Lloyd Bridges Show. But the octogenarian had one more hilarious, beloved and, ultimately, immortal role left in him — the elderly, tough-talking personal trainer Izzy Mandelbaum, who he portrayed in two episodes of Seinfeld and for which he was nominated for a posthumous Emmy.

By its eighth season, Seinfeld fans were accustomed to scene-stealing, guest-starring characters who appeared for one episode — or just a few episodes — only to never be heard from again. And according to Rolling Stone and Decider, Izzy Mandelbaum ranks among the very best of them. But characters like the Soup Nazi, the Maestro or Babu Bhatt weren’t played by former Hollywood leading men, and none were nearly as advanced in age as Bridges was. So, in recognition of Bridges — and his Seinfeld character — here’s a salute to Izzy Mandelbaum, as told by the Seinfeld writers who wrote his two episodes.

It’s go time!

“The English Patient”

“The English Patient” is the 17th episode of Seinfeld’s eighth season. While the title is a reference to Elaine’s story — where people keep dragging her to see The English Patient, which she hates — Jerry’s story mostly takes place in Florida, where he’s visiting his parents in the retirement community of Del Boca Vista. In the gym of Del Boca Vista, Jerry’s dad Morty introduces him to Izzy Mandelbaum, who Morty describes as being, “80 years old, but strong as an ox.” Izzy soon challenges Jerry to a weightlifting competition that lands Izzy in the hospital. 

Steve Koren, Writer of “The English Patient”: A lot of the stuff that I ended up doing on Seinfeld really was a part of my life. I had parents that had retired in Florida and lived in a retirement community — just like Jerry’s parents — so I had a million stories about what it was like when I would go down and visit them. For example, my dad had a #1 Dad shirt and a #1 Dad hat, and I had this idea that it’d be funny if someone took that really seriously, and if they saw someone else with a #1 Dad shirt, they’d see that as a challenge. That was one of my earliest ideas as a Seinfeld writer.

That #1 Dad idea ended up fitting the Izzy Mandelbaum story really well, which was another thing that came from my dad. When I’d visit my parents in the retirement community, I worked out a lot, and my father would come down to the gym with me. One time, we went to the gym together, and he said “hi” to this older guy. My dad turned to me and said, “Can you believe that guy is over 90 years old?” Again, just like Barney Martin [Jerry’s dad] does in the episode. 

Anyway, the guy was in good shape, and my dad was telling me that he came down to the gym every day. And every time the guy did something, my dad would say, “You see that? I bet you couldn’t do that.” In my head, I’m thinking, “Yeah, I could.” When the guy started to do a bench press, my dad said it again: “You see that? I bet you couldn’t do that.” The guy heard him and started to get a bit of an attitude toward me. He started getting aggressive and challenging me and saying, “Go ahead, go ahead!” and trying to get me to do all this stuff. 

The scene was pretty much exactly like what you see in the episode, except I didn’t take up the challenge like Jerry did. The idea for the episode basically came out of the thought, “What if I did accept the challenge?” I figured that would land the man in the hospital, and the story would go from there. 

Izzy Mandelbaum wasn’t that guy’s name though. Izzy Mandelbaum was my father’s uncle — he was a real guy who worked out with Charles Atlas. When he would visit, he’d say, “I worked out with Charles Atlas!” and he gave me a set of weights one time that were made out of wood. As a tribute to my old Uncle Izzy, I used the name Izzy Mandelbaum. 

I don’t specifically remember pitching this episode, but I remember that it took a while to figure out all the beats. On Seinfeld, you could come up with an idea, but unless you could come up with a story in that two-act structure they had, you just didn’t proceed. On that show, forget the jokes, each subsequent story beat had to be funny, that was a rule. So this sat on my board for a while until that was all figured out. 

When it all clicked, Jerry was very excited, and I went off to write it. On Seinfeld, the writing process was very unique. Unlike other shows where you’d group-write from the start, when a Seinfeld idea was greenlit, you’d go off and write it by yourself, then it would get revised afterwards. Originally, Larry [David] and Jerry did the revision, but when Larry left [after Season Seven], the revision process changed so that the whole group would revise it. You still began by writing your own episode though, and that sense of personal ownership of a story was great on that show.

When it came to casting the part, we discussed Art Carney, and we also thought about Jack Warden. I’m so glad we went with Lloyd Bridges though, because he came in and he just owned it. He had this prick kind of quality to the character that just made him come alive. Once we had Lloyd, that’s when a lot of the character clicked for me — stuff like, “It’s go time!” and him chanting “Mandelbaum, Mandelbaum, Mandelbaum.” We were constantly rewriting on Seinfeld, even on set.

When I met Lloyd Bridges, he was 83 or 84 and I remember that he seemed fragile. Honestly, I was worried that some of this stuff might be hard for him, and when we were rehearsing, some of it did seem a bit challenging. But it was one of those cases where, the minute you said “action,” he was amazing.

When we filmed it, the whole family came to see the performance. Jeff Bridges was there and so was Beau Bridges. They were sitting in the audience and thoroughly enjoying watching their father get such huge laughs. Having been a fan of that whole family, it was very sweet and very touching to see that they were just a real family that loved and supported each other.

One of the favorite parts for the audience was the ending scene, where Jerry visits Izzy in the hospital, and then is joined by Izzy’s son and Izzy’s father, all of whom end up hospitalized from trying to pick up a TV. I remember when we were writing that, I was thinking, “This is getting ridiculous,” and we asked, “Can we do that?” But Jerry just said, “Yeah, let’s do it,” and it turned out great. Lloyd was so funny, and those two other guys — [Gene Dynarski as Izzy Mandelbaum Jr. and Earl Schuman as Izzy Mandelbaum Sr.] — were good Mandelbaums, too.

“The Blood”

Less than a year later, Lloyd Bridges returned in “The Blood” for Seinfeld’s last season. This time, the story of Kramer storing his blood at home gave the episode its title, but that theme also intersects with Jerry’s Izzy Mandelbaum story. After Jerry receives a cut to his jugular — and a blood transfusion from Kramer — Jerry’s parents hire Izzy as his personal trainer, which makes his life a living hell.

Dan O’Keefe, Writer of “The Blood”: When I wrote my initial draft of “The Blood,” Izzy Mandelbaum wasn’t in it. There was another Jerry plot that was in this episode, but it just didn’t work. I can’t quite remember what it was, but I think it was a Superman-related thing. It was Jerry and Jeff Schaffer who came up with the idea that Izzy Mandelbaum should come back as Jerry’s personal trainer, because Izzy had been a successful character a year earlier, and he fit with the other stories in the episode, particularly with Kramer’s blood. The standards were high on Seinfeld. If it was a great idea and a great story, that wouldn’t have been enough — it had to fit the episode and tie into the other stories.

That episode was a lot of fun to shoot. When we shot the scene in that fitness museum, I think they found this actual old, abandoned building with all this old workout stuff like a medicine ball and things like that — that might be a false memory though. I do remember, in that scene, when Lloyd started punching Jerry in the stomach and saying, “All aboard the pain train.” I remember pitching that and was very happy it made it in. 

Another part of that episode that just killed was when Kramer and Newman were making sausages in Jerry’s kitchen. It was a funny scene before that, but that crazy music paired with the image of Kramer and Newman grinding meat with this ancient meat grinder, while dancing along. It was so funny. It shut down the set for at least a half hour because everyone was laughing so much. It was sublime.

Plus — and this is what I was talking about with the stories tying together — the sausages led perfectly into a scene where Izzy sees the sausages and thinks that this is Jerry’s diet. In that moment, Lloyd gives this flash of anger and disappointment and then disgust — all at the overwhelming image of all these sausages. If I recall, he got that in one take. 

I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with Lloyd. I met him a couple of times and suggested a couple of lines to him. He was extremely cordial and pleasant, as you’d hope Hollywood royalty would be. He was very old at the time and seemed quite frail, but he hit the marks every time and gave different, very funny reads. He was also good on his feet when, at the end of the episode, Izzy is dragging Jerry behind his car and shouting different stuff at him like, “You gotta want it!”

What’s most interesting about him in that role, to me, is that, in the abstract, Lloyd Bridges shouldn’t, necessarily, make the part of Izzy Mandelbaum work. This strange, elderly fitness enthusiast was unlike any of the other characters he played. Yet, he did it, and he was hilarious, which was a testament to his skill and talent as an actor. 

Mandelbaum! Mandelbaum! Mandelbaum!

Twenty-five years after his debut, and 24 years after Bridges’ death, Izzy Mandelbaum lives on in Seinfeld reruns and countless fitness-related GIFs —  forever a testament to a great actor and a great Seinfeld character. 

Jeff Bridges, actor and son of Lloyd Bridges: I don’t really know much about [Izzy Mandelbaum], but I do know my dad was always game and ready to play. He was a wonderful comedian, a wonderful actor who loved to entertain.

Koren: We were so lucky to get Lloyd Bridges to play the part of Izzy Mandelbaum. He was such a joy to work with. He showed up and gave it his all, and he was hilarious. Still, at the time, I didn’t have an inkling that this was another one of those memorable, Seinfeld-ian, Soup-Nazi-type characters. I thought he was a one-off and that was it. I was surprised he was used in a second episode. 

O’Keefe: Of course they wanted to bring him back. He was Lloyd Bridges!