“Today when people get married there’s a tendency to run away when things get tough. There is a lot of strength in hanging together.”
Jerry Stiller (1927-2020) launched his career opposite wife Anne Meara in the 1950s. The couple performed more than 30 times on The Ed Sullivan Show. I was just crazy for them as a kid. They played off their mismatched backgrounds: he was Eastern European Jewish, and she was Irish-American and Roman Catholic. Although they ended up breaking up the act and going their separate ways in television and film, they remained married until Meara’s passing in 2015.
Most younger people would know him as the hysterically high-strung Frank Costanza on the landmark television series Seinfeld (1989-1998)
Stiller was a multi-talented performer who appeared on stage, television and film. He played Walter Matthau‘s cop sidekick in the thriller The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (1974), Divine‘s husband Wilbur Turnblad in John Waters‘ Hairspray (1988), and as a modeling agency director in his son’s zany film Zoolander (2001) and its 2006 sequel.
His memoir Married To Laughter (2000) about his 50-plus year marriage to Meara. His hundreds of television appearances included everything from Murder She Wrote to Law and Order to Sex And The City. His first appearance was in 1956 and his final television spot was as his agent character in Zoolander: Super Model (2016).
Although his was a supporting character on Seinfeld, Stiller created some of the Emmy-winning series’ most memorable moments, including the co-creator and model for the ”bro”, a bra for men. Stiller received an Emmy Award nomination in 1997 for his work on Seinfeld.
In a 2005 interview for Esquire, Stiller recalled that he was out of work and not the first choice for the role of Frank Costanza, the father of Jason Alexander‘s neurotic George:
”My manager had retired. I was close to 70 years old, and had nowhere to go.”
For the pilot, Stiller was directed to play the role as a meek husband with an overbearing wife, Estelle, played by the great Estelle Harris. But the character wasn’t working until Stiller suggested he play him as an over-the-top crank who matched his wife scream for scream.
Seinfeld revived his career, landing him a spot playing Vince Lombardi in a Nike commercial and the role of another over-the-top dad on another long-running sitcom King Of Queens (1998-2007).
Stiller and Meara raised two children in their longtime home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. His daughter Amy Stiller is an actor, and his son Ben Stiller is a writer, director and actor.
He and and his son performed together in the short film Shoeshine (1988) which was nominated for an Academy Award.
Stiller was considerably quieter and reflective in person than in the characters he played although he was just as funny. The son of a bus driver and a housewife, Stiller grew up in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. He decided to be a performer at eight years old, when his father took him to see a Marx Brothers movie. Years later, Stiller met Groucho Marx and thanked him.
Stiller earned a drama degree at Syracuse University in 1950 after serving in World War II, and then headed to New York City to begin his career. But his life and career took off after he met Meara in spring 1953. They were soon appearing on television and working nightclubs.
The couple also wrote and performed radio commercials, most memorably a series of bits for a wine called Blue Nun. Their ads boosted sales by 500%. They appear as a team in dozens of film, stage and television productions, including After-Play (1995), an Off-Broadway show written by Meara.
Ben Stiller announced on Twitter that his dad had died of natural causes at 92 years old.