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Anne Meara, one half of the famed husband?and?wife comedy team Stiller & Meara and the mother of actor-director Ben Stiller, has died. She was 85.
Her husband, Jerry Stiller, 87, and son said in a statement to the Associated Press that Meara died Saturday. No other details of her death were provided.
“The two were married for 61 years and worked together almost as long,” the statement said.
Meara, a four-time Emmy Award nominee, also is survived by their oldest child, actress Amy Stiller, and several grandchildren.
Stiller & Meara were a mismatched pair: He’s 5-foot-4, introspective and Jewish; she was lanky, two inches taller and an Irish?American from Brooklyn who was raised Catholic. Needing a comedy bit as an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show quickly approached, Stiller came upon the notion to use their dissimilarities for what would become their signature routine, playing the characters Hershey Horowitz and Mary Elizabeth Doyle.
“The uber Jewish guy and the uber Catholic girl … That was Jerry’s idea, to use and plumb the depths of our backgrounds, exaggerate them and have the two differences of the Jewish and the gentile,” Meara said during a 2005 Archive of American Television sit?down with her husband.
Stiller & Meara hit their stride in the 1960s, and the New Yorkers made 36 appearances on Sullivan’s show alone. By the end of the decade, they were the No. 1 couple of comedy, inheriting the title vacated by Elaine May and Mike Nichols. Not since George Burns and Gracie Allen had spouses delighted audiences so hilariously.
They met in a New York theatrical agent’s office in 1953 after both failed to land a job in summer stock. She left the office crying, saying the agent had chased her around his desk, and he took her out for a cup of coffee. Meara paid the meager bill but in exchange asked that he steal some silverware for her and her roommates’ place in Greenwich Village.
“I quickly slipped a fork into my jacket pocket. I’ve just become her accomplice in crime,” Stiller wrote in his 2001 autobiography, Married to Laughter: A Love Story Featuring Anne Meara. “I told myself, ‘What am I getting myself into, hanging out with New York actresses? They’re all crazy. I’m a normal guy. Is this what I have to do to go to bed with someone? She’s committing a crime.’ I wanted to escape, and yet I wanted to prove I wasn’t afraid.”
“‘Well, listen,’ I told her as we hit the street,” Stiller continued. “‘I hope we meet again sometime. Here’s your fork.’ “
Stiller and Meara were married in 1954, and she converted to Judaism. When he was cast in a production of Joseph Papp’s just?formed Shakespeare Company in Central Park, he got her a job as well. While he often played a clown or oaf, she was cast as a leading lady.
They turned to comedy and polished their act in Chicago, improvising with the Compass Players (which also spawned the likes of Nichols & May, Alan Arkin and Shelley Berman). They returned to New York to appear at such venues as The Village Gate, Phase Two and The Blue Angel.
A stint on Merv Griffin’s afternoon talent showcase led to their first appearance on Sullivan’s show, when Meara played a reporter interviewing a man (Stiller) who had been swallowed by a whale. The host liked them so much, he signed them to a contract that called for the duo to appear regularly.
“Ed Sullivan brought us up to the level that we never knew we could get to,” Stiller told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. “Him standing there on the right side of the wings laughing, tears coming out of his eyes and then calling us over and saying, ‘You know, we got a lot of mail on that last show that you did.’ I said, ‘From Catholic or Jewish people?’ He said, ‘The Lutherans.’ “
Their debut LP, Presenting America’s New Comedy Sensation: Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara Live at The Hungry I, released in 1963, was a hit.
But in 1970, they broke up the act. “I love Anne, but if I had depended on her in my professional life, I would have lost her as a wife. We felt like two guys,” Stiller told People magazine in 1977. Said Meara in the same article: “I didn’t know where the act ended and our marriage began.”
Stiller, of course, would carve out an impressive comedy career on his own on Seinfeld and The King of Queens. (Meara also appeared on the latter sitcom, and in its final season, her and Stiller’s characters got married.)
Meara, meanwhile, played the title character, an attorney, on the short-lived 1975 CBS drama Kate McShane, and received her first Emmy nomination. She also portrayed wisecracking cook Veronica Rooney on CBS’ Archie Bunker’s Place, was Eldin’s (Robert Pastorelli) mother on Murphy Brown and had stints on Rhoda, All My Children and Sex and the City.
Her film résumé included The Out of Towners (1970), Nasty Habits (1977), The Boys From Brazil (1978), Fame (1980) — as English teacher Mrs. Sherwood — Awakenings (1990), Reality Bites (1994), directed by her son, and Night at the Museum (2006), which starred Ben.
She also received a Tony Award nomination in 1993 for playing Marthy Owen in a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie.
Longtime residents of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Stiller & Meara toured in the Neil Simon comedies The Last of the Red Hot Lovers and The Prisoner of Second Avenue. In 1986, he played the deputy mayor of New York, and she was his actress wife on The Stiller & Meara Show. And they went at it for an Internet program in 2010 directed by their son.
She and her husband also made a handsome living endorsing everything from banks to disposable lighters to moving companies — and wine.
In 1969, legendary advertising executive Jerry Della Femina hired them to do radio commercials for Blue Nun Wine, a liebfraumilch. At the time, there was much doubt over the effectiveness of humor in advertising, but with Stiller & Meara confusing the sweet wine with Catholic sisters in their ads, sales soared — from 43,000 cases a year in 1969 to more than a million a decade later, according to a 1983 article in New York magazine. (The comics were dropped in 1979 for a campaign that featured a nun on a bicycle.)
In one commercial, Stiller brings home some Blue Nun to celebrate a raise. “Honey,” his wife says, “don’t you think an extra dollar in the collection plate would have been thanks enough?”
And another: “I’m having some friends over for smorgasbord. Some shrimp, a little cheese, some meatballs. What kind of wine can you serve with all those things?” she asks. “Might I suggest you have a little Blue Nun at your smorgasbord?” he replies. “Oh, I don’t think she’d have a very good time,” Meara says. “Besides, it’s going to be all couples.”
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