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Jerry Stiller, the shorter half of the famed husband-and-wife comedy team Stiller and Meara who was the father of the famous (Ben Stiller) and the fictitious (Seinfeld nebbish George Costanza), died early Monday in his New York home. He was 92.
“I’m sad to say that my father, Jerry Stiller, passed away from natural causes,” actor-director Ben Stiller tweeted. “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.”
Anne Meara, his frequent comedy partner, died in May 2015. Survivors also include their daughter Amy Stiller, an actress.
In addition to portraying the combustible Frank Costanza on Seinfeld, Stiller played another dad, the basement-dwelling Arthur Spooner, on the long-running CBS sitcom The King of Queens.
While Stiller was 5-foot-4 and Jewish, Meara was lanky, two inches taller and an Irish American who was raised Catholic. Needing a comedy bit as a stint on The Ed Sullivan Show loomed, Stiller decided to use their dissimilarities for what would become their signature routine, playing the characters Hershey Horowitz and Mary Elizabeth Doyle.
“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.
The New Yorkers, who met in a theatrical agent’s office in 1953 after both failed to land a job in summer stock, made 36 appearances on the Sullivan 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 and following in the footsteps of another famous husband-and-wife team, George Burns and Gracie Allen.
Stiller portrayed the cranky Frank, a former salesman who speaks fluent Korean, on more than two dozen episodes of NBC’s Seinfeld, and in 1997 he received his lone Emmy nomination for his work on the show. (The character was introduced during the fourth-season episode “The Handicap Spot” but was played by John Randolph. Series co-creator Larry David, though, thought Randolph “looked too Protestant,” said Stiller, who flew out to L.A. to audition for the job.)
David told Stiller that his wife on the series, played by the high-pitched Estelle Harris, screamed a lot, so he should play it “very meek,” Stiller recalled. “Well, this happened during rehearsal and I obeyed. I soon realized that I [like Randolph] would be leaving the show because nothing was happening.
“For about three days, we did that same sort of thing, and I felt more and more restricted. Finally, before we were supposed to shoot, I just took it upon myself. When [a hysterical] Estelle said, ‘You’re the one who ruined [George’s] life, you were never there for him, you were a lousy role model, you weren’t a father,’ I [returned fire] out of desperation, ‘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 the place broke up!”
As popular as he was playing George’s (Jason Alexander) dad on Seinfeld, Stiller was more visible on The King of Queens, the blue-collar sitcom that ran from September 1998 to May 2007. His irascible character lived with his daughter, Carrie, and son-in-law, Doug (Leah Remini and Kevin James), after burning down his home in the pilot. (Meara also was on the show, and in its final season, her Veronica and his Arthur got married.)
After Seinfeld‘s success, Stiller said James “seduced” him to take that job.
Stiller also played mobster Carmine Vespucci in Terrence McNally’s 1975 Broadway hit The Ritz, and he reprised the role a year later for the Richard Lester film adaptation. He also showed up in such films as The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), Airport 1975 (1974), Nasty Habits (1977) and Hairspray (both the 1988 and 2007 versions) and in his son’s films Zoolander (2001), Zoolander 2 (2016) and The Heartbreak Kid (2007).
Stiller was born on June 8, 1927, in Brooklyn, the son of a bus driver (“the shortest probably in all of New York City”) who wanted him to become a dental technician — someone who makes false teeth. The boy would deliver lunch to his father in a paper bag, but his mother, Bella, sometimes would mix things up, and he would mistakenly hand over a bag filled with garbage instead.
He got his first taste of acting during high school when he performed for the local Henry Street Playhouse. He served in the Army and then headed, thanks to the GI Bill, to study drama at Syracuse University.
Back in New York after graduation, he sold hot dogs at Nedick’s and made cold calls at agencies, looking for acting jobs. Occasionally, he was accompanied by John Cassavetes, another struggling actor. He found work as an extra on the live TV shows The Colgate Comedy Hour and Studio One.
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 helped her get a job as well. He often played a clown or oaf.
They turned to comedy and polished their act in Chicago, improvising with the Compass Players (which also spawned the careers of Nichols and 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 when Meara played a reporter interviewing a man (Stiller) who had been swallowed by a whale. Sullivan quickly signed them to a contract that called for the duo to appear regularly.
Their debut LP, Presenting America’s New Comedy Sensation: Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara Live at The Hungry I, released in 1963, sold well.
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,” Stiller told People magazine in 1977. Said Meara, “I didn’t know where the act ended and our marriage began.”
Longtime residents of the Upper West Side, Stiller and Meara got back together professionally. They 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. They went at it for an internet program in 2010 directed by their son. And Stiller provided the voice for Principal Stickler on the Disney Channel series Fish Hooks.
The two also had a nice side job endorsing Blue Nun Wine, a liebfraumilch, in radio ads. With Stiller and 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, playing a guy at a singles resort, offers Meara’s character a little Blue Nun. “Is she the one in the little black pedal pushers?” Meara asks.
And another (which The Hollywood Reporter linked to in Meara’s obituary and couldn’t help but repeat here): “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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