Jerry Stiller: Comedian who specialised in crotchety sitcom fathers

Best-known for his roles in ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘The King of Queens’, he was also a renowned one-liner comic and a familiar face on film

Harrison Smith
Monday 25 May 2020 20:07
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Stiller said that laughter was the answer to his childhood pain
Stiller said that laughter was the answer to his childhood pain

Jerry Stiller was a Brooklyn-born entertainer who formed a popular comedy act in the 1960s with his wife, Anne Meara, before playing crotchety, kvetching fathers on TV sitcoms – most notably the hypertensive Frank Costanza on Seinfeld.

Stiller, who has died aged 92, rose to national prominence on a barrage of one-line jokes and sly ethnic humour, with his Jewish background and Meara’s Irish Catholic heritage forming a comic motif.

With age, he transformed into a master of righteous indignation and raucous anger, drawing on memories of fights between his parents to create some of the funniest moments of the Nineties’ most celebrated and popular sitcom.

As Costanza, Stiller was perpetually struggling to control his temper, blood pressure and contempt for his son, George, played by Jason Alexander. Among the few tools he used to regain his composure was a mantra he learned from a relaxation tape – “serenity now” – which he screamed while raising his hands to the heavens. Serenity never seemed to come.

Stiller effectively reprised the role in The King of Queens, which premiered in 1998, months after the finale of Seinfeld, and ran for nine seasons. Onscreen, he appeared in movies such as The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), as a wisecracking New York police lieutenant, and Zoolander (2001), in which he was the excitable talent agent of a model played by his real-life son, Ben Stiller.

For an older generation of viewers, Stiller was best remembered as the shorter, more intense half of Stiller and Meara, a husband-and-wife duo in the mould of George Burns and Gracie Allen, or friends Mike Nichols and Elaine May – whom Stiller and Meara succeeded as performers in the Compass Players, a Chicago improv group that spawned Second City.

While Meara initially sought to work as a dramatic actor, not a comedian, Stiller convinced her they would make a good comic team. In 1961 they began performing in Greenwich Village nightclubs, where Ed Sullivan caught them live and invited them to his weekly TV variety show. They returned more than 30 times.

With his wife and comedy partner Anne Meara on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ in 1970 

The couple largely stopped performing together in 1970, saying they wanted to focus on their own careers and to preserve their marriage. Meara went on to work as an Emmy- and Tony-nominated actor, and the couple continued to write and record lucrative, lighthearted radio adverts.

Stiller also appeared on celebrity game shows and in episodes of The Love Boat, and he starred in the Broadway production and 1976 movie adaptation of The Ritz, by playwright Terrence McNally. Yet he said his career had slipped and he “felt my life disappearing” when he was offered a guest role in Seinfeld, which began in 1989.

The part of Frank Costanza was initially filled by actor John Randolph until show creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David approached Stiller, seeking to shake things up. Written as a milquetoast foil to actor Estelle Harris, who played Frank’s wife, the character was reinvented on the fly by Stiller, who was seeking to avoid the fate of his predecessor.

Master of his domain: Stiller as Frank Costanza in ‘Seinfeld’ 

“I read my line gently, as I had been told, and it was as if a pall fell over the room,” he said in 1996. “So I did the scene again, and this time I really screamed. Everybody broke up laughing. Then Jason asked me to hit him. I didn’t want to, but he encouraged me to really let him have it. I did, and it got another huge laugh. And now screaming and hitting are my trademarks.”

The oldest of four children, Gerald Isaac Stiller was born in 1927. His mother was a Polish-born homemaker; his father, a bus and taxi driver, was the son of immigrants from eastern Europe. When the elder Stiller won $5,000 in the “Irish sweepstakes” lottery during the Depression, the family moved to New York’s Lower East Side and, Stiller said, “finally had groceries”.

His parents fought frequently, typically over money, but their squabbles provided inspiration for Stiller’s career. As a boy, he received free tickets to a Rockefeller Centre performance by the stage, radio and film star Eddie Cantor and took his parents with him. He wrote in a memoir, Married to Laughter (2000), that the show made his parents smile: “I had done something that seemed impossible. Eddie Cantor could bring peace to my family. From that moment I really wanted to become a comedian.”

After army service, he received a bachelor’s degree in speech and drama from Syracuse University in 1950.

Showbiz family: Stiller and Meara receive their Hollywood Walk of Fame star in 2007; children Amy and Ben look on 

Stiller performed in the New York Shakespeare Festival under producer Joseph Papp and appeared in more than a dozen plays on Broadway, including David Rabe’s dark comedy Hurlyburly, which opened in 1984.

Beginning in 2010, he and Meara appeared in web videos produced by Ben Stiller, sitting on a couch and chatting about WikiLeaks, the homeless, the television series Jersey Shore and whatever else came to mind.

Stiller also appeared alongside his son in the comedies Hot Pursuit (1987), Heavy Weights (1995) and The Heartbreak Kid (2007).

Comedy, he said, was simply not something he could live without. “Laughter is the answer to all the pain I experienced as a kid,” he said in 1999. “When I’m not doing it, it all gets eerie and weird. I am only left with the memories that inhabit me that can only be knocked out by hearing laughter.”

Stiller is survived by his two children Amy and Ben, both performers.

Jerry Stiller, comedian and actor, born 8 June 1927, died 12 May 2020

© Washington Post

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