Icons: Ben Stiller

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A little more than 20 years ago, Ben Stiller was playing a bit part in Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun" (1987) when he started fooling around with some new ideas.

"A lot of my friends were going off to be in Vietnam movies," he recalls. "They were going to these fake boot camps and talking about these incredibly life-changing experiences they had."

Stiller saw the glimmer of a comedy there.

Today, that notion has paid off in DreamWorks' "Tropic Thunder," the critically acclaimed film that he wrote, produced, directed and toplined. It's the most ambitious picture Stiller has yet made and an indication that he has truly become a force to be reckoned with, offscreen as well as on.

Newsweek film critic David Ansen, for one, is eager to see more of Stiller behind the camera. "His great subject matter is the media. It's showbiz and actors, and he's turning into one of our best satirists on that subject."

Stiller's importance to the movie business will be recognized Wednesday, when he's honored at New York's Museum of the Moving Image gala, following past recipients such as Tom Cruise, Martin Scorsese and Spielberg.

To outsiders, Stiller is familiar as the comedic star of movies such as "Reality Bites" (1994), "There's Something About Mary" (1998) and "Meet the Parents" (2000). But to many of the entertainment industry insiders who'll attend the black-tie event, Stiller has become just as noteworthy for his work behind the scenes.

Through Red Hour Films, the production company in which he is partnered with producer Stuart Cornfeld (1980's "The Elephant Man"), he is responsible for a host of films -- and not all of them are comedies.

"When you're starting out, trying to get a foothold, you go with your strength," he says of his initial bent toward comedic material. "You go with the kind of movies you think you can get made. For us, that was comedies. Once you become somewhat successful, that allows you the opportunity to break out and do different things."

A case in point is "The Ruins," the recent horror film Red Hour's partners executive produced, based on Scott Smith's popular novel.

"'The Ruins,' though it wasn't a big boxoffice hit, was a great experience for us," Stiller says. (It made $17.4 million.) "It was the first time we were able to work on a film outside the comedy genre. That's the hope -- that we'll be able to make different kinds of movies and be as diverse as possible."

Just how diverse Stiller plans to be might surprise admirers who are still laughing over his more memorable scenes -- like the accident with his zipper in "Mary," or his encounters with a near-deranged Robert De Niro in "Parents," or his stumbling into dinosaurs in "Night at the Museum" (2006).

He's particularly excited about making the film version of "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," a story by George Saunders about the night watchman at a Civil War theme park in a gang-infested neighborhood.

Saunders' style is "surreal, yet grounded in a sort of reality," Stiller says, adding that his challenge has been translating that style to the screen.

He's also keen to make the life story of Oscar Levant, the brilliant pianist who was a friend of George Gershwin. Then there's "The Return of King Doug," an optioned property about a man who has dwelled in a fantasy world as a child, grows up and eventually returns to that world.

This doesn't mean he is abandoning comedy; indeed, he and Cornfeld are working on new comedy projects with sketch teams Little Britain and Human Giant. But it does show that, at age 42, Stiller is still extending his reach.

His current endeavors go beyond his comic roots.

Born in 1965, as the son of comedians Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, he grew up in show business. But, as far as he was concerned, that was always more about being a director than an actor, about making little home movies and satirizing the showbiz world he loved.

This impulse continued as he matured.

"When I started out, when I wasn't getting work as an actor, I didn't sit around and wait for somebody to hire me," Stiller says. Instead, after leaving UCLA, he made his own shorts, often working with friends who were doing the same thing.

One of those shorts was a spoof of "The Color of Money," Scorsese's 1986 sequel to the 1961 Paul Newman classic "The Hustler." In it, Stiller took the Cruise role. When executive producer Lorne Michaels saw it, he aired it on "Saturday Night Live" and gave Stiller a yearlong stint on the show.

That led to Fox's short-lived but Emmy Award-winning "The Ben Stiller Show" and, eventually, to his feature directorial debut with "Reality Bites."

But it was only after he directed Jim Carrey in 1996's "The Cable Guy" and starred in 1996's "Flirting With Disaster" that Stiller set up Red Hour, whose name derives from an episode in the original "Star Trek" series, "The Return of the Archons." In it, "The Red Hour" is a reference to a time of riot and debauchery.

While Stiller finds the name "sort of embarrassing" and says it "makes me look like a geek," Red Hour is anything but geeky: It has made nine movies in the last eight years alone.

Stiller frequently makes movies with "people you really connect with when you're starting out, when nobody knows who you are." But he hasn't used that leverage to get his projects off the ground.

"I've never felt comfortable calling up somebody and asking them to do me a favor," he says.

"I just send them the script and say, 'I think this would be fun or interesting.'"

He tempts them with the opportunity "to come in for a day or two and take a chance and do something different and not have to have the responsibility of the entire movie on your shoulders."

Cruise's participation in "Tropic Thunder" was a case in point. It was Cruise who suggested adding the character of a volatile producer, after Stiller showed him a draft of the script. Later, when he gave his friend the reworked screenplay, Cruise liked it so much he offered to play the role himself.

Stiller hasn't yet managed to take on the kind of meaty, dramatic roles that stretched Cruise's screen persona, like those in "Rain Man" (1988) or "Born on the Fourth of July" (1989). But it would be foolish to consign him to purely comic fare.

He hopes to be "making challenging films, both as an actor and a director. I'm excited about doing different kinds of movies," he says. "It's something I'm interested in, but it's also something I'm not going to force."



Timeline

1984: Drops out of UCLA to attend the Actors Studio.

1986: Appears in Tony-winning revival of "The House of Blue Leaves."

1987: Wins a role in Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun."

1988: Joins the cast of "Saturday Night Live." Leaves after five shows.

1990: The sitcom "The Ben Stiller Show" airs on MTV. It's canceled after one season.

1992: The comedy sketch series "The Ben Stiller Show" debuts on Fox but is canceled after 12 episodes.

1994: Makes his directorial debut with "Reality Bites."

1996: Directs Jim Carrey in "The Cable Guy." Stars in "Flirting With Disaster."

1997: Forms Red Hour Films.

1998: Scores a runaway hit as the hapless hero of "There's Something About Mary." Stuart Cornfeld joins Red Hour Films.

2000: Stars in "Meet the Parents."

2001: Red Hour seals a first-look deal with DreamWorks. "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "Zoolander," the first film from Red Hour, are released.

2004: "Along Came Polly," "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy," "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story," "Meet the Fockers" and "Starsky & Hutch" are released. Red Hour Films reups first-look deal with DreamWorks.

2005: Stars in "Night at the Museum."

2007: Stars in "The Heartbreak Kid."

2008: Writes, produces, directs and stars in critical and boxoffice hit "Tropic Thunder." Executive produces horror film "The Ruins." Receives honor from the
Museum of the Moving Image.
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