Comedian and actor Jerry Stiller has passed away aged 92. The news came via his son Ben Stiller on social media yesterday. It happened in Manhattan, through natural causes. World famous for his role as the explosive Frank Costanza in Seinfeld, Stiller’s career encompassed both big and small screens, together with Broadway and the comedy circuit.
Born Gerald Isaac Stiller in Brooklyn 1927, he was the son of William, a bus driver, and Bella, a homemaker. His paternal grandparents were Jewish, hailing from the region of Galicia in south east Poland/western Ukraine. Serving in the Army during World War II, he attended Syracuse University thanks to the G.I. Bill (The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944). There he developed his interest in acting and drama under Sawyer Falk. Stiller’s other inspirations included Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor.
Although working onstage with the likes of Jack Klugman (Quincy), this classically-trained actor first found fame through a comedy partnership with wife Anne Meara. The pair met in 1953 and performed with the Compass Players, a forerunner of Second City. In the 1960s they appeared frequently on the Ed Sullivan Show before going on to make adverts.
Their chemistry, fuelled by improvisation, made them highly popular. “At a time when it was rare for men and women of different religions to date, let alone marry,” writes the New York Times, “Stiller and Meara broke new comic ground with their routines about the rocky but loving relationship of Hershey Horowitz and Mary Elizabeth Doyle, characters loosely based on themselves.” Stiller’s background was Eastern European, hers Irish-American.
Meara passed away in 2015, though the couple were united onscreen a final time in sitcom The King Of Queens (1998 – 2007). “Younger viewers might not have known it,” the Times comments, “but their scenes together represented the reunion of one of the most successful male-female comedy teams of all time.”
Stiller’s next big role came in the Nineties. However he worked in various mediums before that. The Eighties, for example, showcases the breadth of his output – on Broadway he appeared in the play Hurlyburly by David Rabe (1984). The following year he took a dramatic role in the pilot episode of The Equalizer alongside Edward Woodward. 1988 saw him play Wilbur Turnblad opposite Divine in Jon Waters’ iconic comedy Hairspray.
He joined Seinfeld in its fifth season (1993 – 4). Frank Costanza, father to Jason Alexander’s George, was originally played by John Randolph as a hen-pecked husband. When Stiller replaced him, he was asked to play it the same way. A cautious Stiller had reservations about the part in the first place, altering his own dialogue. But working against his instinct to flare up just didn’t feel right to him.
“You’re going to play opposite a woman who screams a lot, Estelle Harris, so you play it very meek,” Stiller said, in an interview for the Television Academy in 2011. He added, “this happened during rehearsal and I obeyed… for about 3 days we kept doing that sort of thing and I felt more and more restricted.
The final day before we were supposed to shoot, I just took it upon myself… she said ‘You’re the one who ruined his life, you never were there for him, you were a lousy role model, you weren’t a father!’ And out of desperation I says ‘YOU’RE THE ONE WHO KILLED HIM OFF! YOU SLEPT IN BED WITH HIM, YOU MADE HIM SANDWICHES, YOU NEVER TREATED HIM LIKE A REAL OBJECT!” and then the place broke up and laughed.”
The abrupt switch in gears changed the part forever. Alexander would encourage Stiller to slap him, and then Harris joined in. Costanza Sr had many memorable moments on the show, one of which involved his creation of “Festivus”. A grim alternative to Christmas inflicted on George as a boy, its traditions included an aluminium pole instead of a tree and humiliating “feats of strength”. Frank’s classic lines include: “Serenity now!” (a meditative mantra which famously led to “Insanity later”) and “You don’t need glasses, you’re just weak!”
He had a distinctive way of delivering dialogue. “Stiller’s unpredictable manner of speaking—he could shift from a mumble to an explosive shout in an instant—conveyed an anger that helped define his character” writes The Atlantic. Seinfeld’s writing staff put this down to a failing memory. The website goes on to note, “Frank Costanza was the crowning role in a storied career that ended yesterday… and it’s the role that arguably most resonated with audiences.” He received an Emmy nomination in 1997. A major TV role followed Seinfeld in the shape of The King of Queens’ Arthur Spooner.
Son Ben cast him in his Zoolander movies as Maury Ballstein. This was his final performance in film and on TV (the Zoolander: Super Model animated series). Stiller leaves behind a sister, Doreen. His marriage to Meara lasted until her passing in 2015. They had Ben and daughter Amy, who’s also in showbusiness. Ben Stiller posted on Twitter: “He was a great dad and grandfather, and the most dedicated husband to Anne for about 62 years. He will be greatly missed. Love you Dad.”
“He was perhaps the kindest man I ever had the honor to work beside” tweeted Jason Alexander. “He made me laugh when I was a child and every day I was with him. A great actor, a great man, a lovely friend. Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Elaine Benes) added: “He was so funny and such a dear human being. We loved him.” Meanwhile Jerry Seinfeld himself posted a snap of himself looking devastated.
Wayne Knight (Newman) described Stiller as “a kind, brilliant comedian who had no idea how great he was. What an honor! He was a giant!” Stiller was known for working long into old age. This quote from the Daily News of New York sums up his approach: “The only time you ever stop working is when they don’t call you.”