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Talking to The New Yorker for an interview published Tuesday, Ben Stiller explained why Frank Costanza was a much-needed second act for his father, and why the character was rather shocking to his children.
“I think Seinfeld really changed his life, because he was at a point in his career where the phone wasn’t really ringing,” Stiller told Isaac Chotiner. “So for someone who’s thrived on work and thrived on being funny and having an interaction with an audience, it really changed everything for him.”
The elder Stiller had said in a previous interview that he actually passed on the character initially because he had not heard of the show (“Who’s Seinfeld?”) and was in the middle of a Broadway play when he was approached. Another actor was cast but did not have the right feel for the producers, so Stiller was asked again to join Seinfeld. He agreed the second time around.
“He loved working with those actors, and he would prepare like he was doing Shakespeare,” Ben Stiller told the magazine. “He would break it down, a sitcom script, and figure out ‘Why am I saying this? What’s the motivation for this character? What’s his history?’ So it came out of him putting everything into it, and not trying to be funny.”
The elder Stiller made Frank Costanza a fan favorite, but the character was fairly shocking to the actor’s children, his son told Chotiner.
“We had a small service for him, and I was talking to the rabbi about him, because I hadn’t had a chance to meet him. And the rabbi was talking about his character on Seinfeld,” Stiller recalled. “And I said, ‘He never once raised his voice to me, ever, as a kid. Ever.’ So I watch that and I laugh, because I’m, like, ‘Who is that person?’ Because that really was not him, but I think he was unleashing something that I think was suppressed in his real life.”
“He had the most amazing comedic stuff that he — we didn’t know if he was planning it or it just came out that way, or he couldn’t remember the line, or we didn’t know what it was, but we did not want to disturb it in any way,” Seinfeld recently said. “We never gave Jerry Stiller a note. I never adjusted his performance once. Whatever he did, that’s it. We’re putting that out there.”
As for being remembered primarily for Seinfeld, Ben Stiller said his father would have something of a problem with that notion.
“I think the only thing that might have bothered him a little bit was that he wanted people to remember his work with [wife] Anne, because he loved my mom so much,” he said. “I think that would be the only aspect of it. He would be, like, ‘But Anne—Anne is amazing.’ And I can understand that, because they did such incredible work together over the years. But I don’t think he was one of those actors who was like, ‘I have to be known for something else.’ I think he was grateful for the success.”
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