Many people, especially youngsters, know Jerry Stiller as the prickly, crotchety Frank Costanza, father of George, on “Seinfeld,” (He popularized the faux holiday, ” ‘Festivus’ ” for the rest of us.”) and/or Arthur Spooner, Kevin James’ father-in-law on “King of Queens.” (While recruiting Jerry for the role James told him he “needed him in order to have a successful show.”) Those roles were very popular, but, in reality Stiller enjoyed a 60-year career in tv, movies, on the stage, and as an author. His primary talent was as a comedian, most notably in partnership with his wife of over 60 years, comedienne Anne Meara. He considered himself merely a “decent” actor.
Gerald Isaac Stiller was born on June 8, 1927 in Brooklyn, NY, the oldest of four children. His mother and his paternal grandparents were polish immigrants. His father was a bus driver. He grew up in Williamsburg and East New York in Brooklyn and the lower East Side of Manhattan.
Upon graduation from Syracuse University he studied drama at the HB Studio in Greenwich Village, NY. At one point, he hooked up with Gene Saks and Jack Klugman in a production of “Front and Center” produced by John Houseman. Houseman was so impressed with their talent that he called them “the best trio of Shakespearian clowns that I have ever seen on any stage.”
Perhaps, the key moment in Jerry’s life and career was a chance meeting with actress-comedienne Anne Meara in 1953. They met in an agent’s office. Jerry took her out for coffee, which was all he could afford at the time, and the rest, as they say, is history. They married the next year, and the marriage lasted until Meara’s death in 2015. A sixty-one-year marriage is a real rarity in Hollywood. The couple had two children, Ben and Amy, both of which are actors.
At Jerry’s suggestion the two formed a comedy team, “Stiller and Meara.” Meara gave Stiller full credit for the idea. “He always thought I would be a great comedy partner. [I] had never thought of [it].” By 1961 they were headlining in nightclubs, and by 1962 they were big stars. In one review, “The NY Times” characterized them as a “national phenomenon.” They appeared frequently on tv variety shows, such as “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which was the holy grail at that time.
They broke up the act in 1970, but they continued to work. For example, they did a series of radio commercials for products such as “Blue Nun” wine; and they did a series of comedy sketches on tv. Then, in 1986 they had their own tv show, “The Stiller and Meara Show.”
During all this time Jerry was extremely active, performing on the stage, on tv and in movies. His first stage production was “The Golden Apple” in 1954 in which he played the mayor. He performed in over a dozen productions through 1997. He appeared in over 60 tv shows from 1956 through 2016, usually guest shots on sitcoms or variety shows. He appeared in a series of tv commercials for Nike in which he portrayed the ghost of former Green Bay Packers Head Coach, Vince Lombardi. Finally, he appeared in some 40 movies, as both an actor and a “voiceover,” between 1970 (“Lovers and Other Strangers,” an uncredited role) and 2016 (“Zoolander 2”). In addition, he authored a memoir titled, “Married to Laughter: A Love Story Featuring Anne Meara” and the foreword to a book titled “Festivus: A Holiday for the Rest of Us.”
Jerry was nominated for three awards: A Primetime Emmy (for “Seinfeld”), a Grammy (Best Spoken Word Album), and a Screen Actors Guild Award (“Hairspray”). Furthermore, in 2007 he and Anne were honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Jerry passed away on May 11, 2020 from natural causes at the age of 92. Rest in peace Jerry. You entertained us for 60 some years, and you will be sorely missed.