September 20, 1929 – Anne Meara:
“If you can’t hurt the other person at least once a day, then you’ve got no relationship.”
Almost from the moment they met, the comedy duo of Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller combusted with their special chemistry.
In 20th century showbiz, a “double act” was the comic pairing where the humor is derived from the uneven relationship between two partners, usually of the same age, ethnic origin and profession but drastically different in terms of personality or behavior. Among the popular double acts: Bud Abbott and Lou Costello; Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin; Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding; George Burns and Gracie Allen; Mike Nichols and Elaine May. They appeared on television on their own series and variety shows, and in clubs. They recorded popular albums that adults would play at smart cocktail parties.
Meara met Stiller in 1953, and they married in 1955, until Stiller suggested it, she had never thought of doing comedy. Meara:
“Jerry started us being a comedy team. He always thought I would be a great comedy partner.”
They joined the improv company The Compass Players, which later became the famed Second City, and after leaving, formed the team Stiller and Meara. By 1961, they were performing in nightclubs in New York City, and by the following year they were considered a national phenomenon. Their act drew comedy from a bickering relationship between a tall Irish girl, Mary Elizabeth Doyle, and a short Jewish man, Hershey Horowitz.
Their improvised routines brought many of their relationship foibles to live audiences. Their act focused on domestic themes, in the manner of Nichols and May. Basically, they were Nichols and May with warmth. They also added a twist by playing up the fact that Stiller was Jewish, and Meara was Catholic. After Nichols and May broke up as a team in 1961, Stiller and Meara were the number one couple comedy team of the decade. Plus, Mike Nichols and Elaine May were not married, so Stiller and Meara were the most famous married couple comedy team since Burns and Allen.
As a kid, I just loved catching Stiller and Meara on The Ed Sullivan Show, where they were regulars with 36 appearances, and nearly as many on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. In 1963, they released their first LP, Presenting America’s New Comedy Sensation: Jerry Stiller And Anne Meara Live At The Hungry I, which was a huge hit. In 1970, they broke up the act because it was affecting their marriage. Meara:
“I didn’t know where the act ended and our marriage began.”
“I would have lost her as a wife.”
Meara was born in Brooklyn, of Irish descent. An only child, she was raised on Long Island. When she was 11-years-old, her mother took her own life. She studied at the Dramatic Workshop at The New School in Manhattan. When she was 18-years-old, she began her acting career in summer stock.
In 1956, Meara appeared on Broadway in Ivan Turgenev‘s A Month In The Country, directed by Michael Redgrave, and in Bertolt Brecht‘s The Good Woman Of Setzuan, both with Uta Hagen, with whom she had studied. She also had roles in Joseph Papp‘s earliest Shakespeare In The Park productions. Meara earned a Tony Award nomination for a revival of Eugene O’Neill‘s Anna Christie in 1993. She wrote After-Play (1995), a comedy about couples going to a restaurant after a play, which had a long, well-reviewed Off-Broadway run. In 2000, another play she wrote, Down The Garden Paths, had an Off-Broadway run as well.
After loving her work with her husband on television, I took note of her acting chops in Lovers And Other Strangers (1970) by Renée Taylor and Joseph Bologna. What a cast! The ensemble includes: Gig Young, Cloris Leachman, Anne Jackson, Beatrice Arthur, Bonnie Bedelia, Harry Guardino, and, in her film debut, Diane Keaton.
My favorite Meara film performance is as Sister Geraldine, the Gerald Ford stand-in the Watergate Scandal satire Nasty Habits (1977) directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, starring Glenda Jackson (as Richard Nixon!), Anne Jackson, Melina Mercouri (as Henry Kissinger!), Sandy Dennis (as John Dean) and Geraldine Page, plus Rip Torn (Page’s husband), Eli Wallach (Jackson’s husband) and Stiller. Meara is insanely good in this.
She was great as a Nazi-hunter in The Boys From Brazil (1978) opposite Laurence Olivier and Hagen.
She is heartbreaking in Penny Marshall‘s Awakenings (1990) based on Oliver Sacks‘s 1973 memoir about catatonic patients awakened after decades. Meara’s co-stars include Robert De Niro, Robin Williams, Julie Kavner and Max von Sydow. Meara plays a Jewish patient emerging from a decades-long coma, relieved to learn that her husband had divorced her years before.
She was especially effective in Alan Parker‘s musical Fame (1980) as a put-upon English teacher trying to get through to a class of reluctant students, clashing with a hostile, secretly illiterate, black dancer.
Meara worked like crazy in television in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, with recurring roles on Rhoda, Archie Bunker’s Place, and All My Children (1992-99), in which she played a commonsense maid to whom the plot would return for calm whenever the story line got too nutty. On Archie Bunker’s Place (1979-82), Meara was the bar’s wisecracking, alcoholic cook. She received two Emmy nominations for her work in that one. She has over 100 television credits on all sorts of programs, silly and serious, from The Love Boat to Oz.
In recent years, Meara appeared on the popular The King Of Queens opposite her husband, and the box-office hit Night At The Museum (2006) with her son, Ben Stiller.
Ben Stiller made his first film with a Super 8 camera his father bought him and grew up to direct his parents in their Web series, Stiller And Meara.
Meara was incredibly versatile as an actor. She brought humanity, grace and compassion to her portrayal of Miranda Hobbes’ (Cynthia Nixon) mother-in-law on Sex And The City and Sex And The City: The Movie (2008). Writer and director Michael Patrick King wrote the role of a woman with dementia for Meara. It wasn’t the first time Meara worked with Nixon. In 1988, Nixon played Juliet opposite Meara’s nurse in Romeo And Juliet at The Public Theater. On Sex And The City, Meara’s character goes from a devout, headstrong Catholic to an incredibly vulnerable woman who would wander into the street unaware of her surroundings after suffering a stroke.
In interviews, she preferred to talk about Stiller’s work outside of acting because she was weary of talking about herself and their personal lives.
She had a 60-year career as an actor, but for one generation she is most remembered for the series of commercials for Blue Nun Wine during the 1970s, which she and Stiller wrote and performed.
It was such a great partnership. They first met at a casting agent’s office in the mid-1950s. Meara was in tears, not because she didn’t, but because of that old showbiz tradition of sexual harassment. Stiller offered to take Meara out for coffee, and rather than picking up the check, Meara asked him to steal the silverware. Meara:
”I lived in the Village and my roommate, Joyce Arbuckle and me, we needed another set of silverware.”
Meara and Stiller reminded me of George Burns and Gracie Allen, their chemistry radiated through their performances. They remained each other’s biggest fans through more than six decades of marriage, one of the great and lasting romances of showbiz. Six years after marrying Stiller, she converted to Judaism, and took her new religion very seriously. Stiller:
”You know, being married to Anne has made me more Jewish. She really believes in the belief system of Judaism. Her observance of the holidays… I had taken them for granted.”
I only saw her on stage once, in John Guare‘s The House Of Blue Leaves in 1971. She was beyond brilliant. She studied with Uta Hagen, and then she taught at Hagen’s HB Studios, where I studied in the mid-1970s. I would see her in the lobby. I never spoke to her, she always seemed to be in a hurry.
Meara left this world in 2015, taken after a series of strokes. She was 85-years-old.