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One of the few non-superstar performers with genuine cross-generational appeal, Jerry Stiller was an actor best known to younger audiences for his portrayal of two explosive and eccentric TV fathers - Frank Costanza on "Seinfeld" (NBC, 1989-1998) and Arthur Spooner on "King of Queens" (CBS, 1998-2007). But older TV fans and moviegoers remembered him as one half of Stiller and Meara, a popular comedy team with roots in the famed Second City improvisational group. Stiller also endeared himself to audiences with exuberant performances in features like John Waters' "Hairspray" (1985) and its 2007 remake. And he was a veteran of the New York stage, with frequent appearances in Joseph Papp's Shakespeare in the Park productions, and on Broadway in "The Ritz" and "Hurlyburly" for Mike Nichols. The fact that he was also the father of the extremely successful comic film actor, Ben Stiller, was not lost on fans who could see that the comic apple did not fall from the tree.Born Gerald Stiller in New York City on June 8, 1927, Stiller began performing at an early age, working professionally as a stage actor in touring companies shortly after graduating from the University of Syracuse in 1950 with a degree in...
One of the few non-superstar performers with genuine cross-generational appeal, Jerry Stiller was an actor best known to younger audiences for his portrayal of two explosive and eccentric TV fathers - Frank Costanza on "Seinfeld" (NBC, 1989-1998) and Arthur Spooner on "King of Queens" (CBS, 1998-2007). But older TV fans and moviegoers remembered him as one half of Stiller and Meara, a popular comedy team with roots in the famed Second City improvisational group. Stiller also endeared himself to audiences with exuberant performances in features like John Waters' "Hairspray" (1985) and its 2007 remake. And he was a veteran of the New York stage, with frequent appearances in Joseph Papp's Shakespeare in the Park productions, and on Broadway in "The Ritz" and "Hurlyburly" for Mike Nichols. The fact that he was also the father of the extremely successful comic film actor, Ben Stiller, was not lost on fans who could see that the comic apple did not fall from the tree.
Born Gerald Stiller in New York City on June 8, 1927, Stiller began performing at an early age, working professionally as a stage actor in touring companies shortly after graduating from the University of Syracuse in 1950 with a degree in drama. Stiller's specialty was comic roles in the classics, and thus, made his Broadway debut in a 1953 production of Shakespeare's "Coriolanus." He returned to Shakespeare on a number of occasions throughout his career, including several appearances in Joseph Papp's Shakespeare in the Park productions and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. During a casting call in 1953, he met Anne Meara, a fellow aspiring actress, and the pair hit it off immediately. They were married the following year, and had two children, Amy (born 1961) and Ben (born 1965), both of whom followed in their parents' comedic and theatrical footsteps.
With Meara, Stiller not only found his off-stage soulmate, he also found a perfect comic foil. The couple formed a popular comedy duo whose humor was based largely on the harmony and dissonance created by two distinct opposites - the short, balding, Jewish Stiller and the tall, Irish Meara, who, unbeknownst to many, converted to Judaism after marrying Stiller, lest it ruin their act. They began crafting sketches in 1959 at David Gordon's Phase II in Greenwich Village, and honed their act as part of The Compass Players, an improvisational comedy group that included such future legends as Mike Nicholas and Elaine May, Alan Alda, Jane Alexander, Ed Asner and Shelly Berman (the Players eventually became the famed Second City Troupe).
The couple's big break came in 1963 when Ed Sullivan tapped them to appear on his variety program (CBS, 1948-1971), to which they would return an estimated 36 times. The pair toured the country as co-headliners and in support of such acclaimed acts as The Supremes, The Count Basie Orchestra, and performed frequently in Las Vegas. Stiller and Meara also appeared together in several television series, including "The Paul Lynde Show" (ABC, 1972-73) as Lynde's loud and intrusive new in-laws, and headlined a syndicated series of comedy shorts called "Take Five With Stiller and Meara" (1977). Their last attempt at a series came in 1986 with the failed pilot for "The Stiller and Meara Show" - with the pair playing married politicos in New York - on which both served as co-writers. Meara would also later make frequent appearances on Stiller's series, most notably on "The King of Queens." The pair also co-starred in a handful of movies, including "Lovers and Other Strangers" (1970), "Nasty Habits" (1977), "A Fish in the Bathtub" (1999) and their son's hit, "Zoolander" (2001). They also collaborated on a series of amusing and award-winning radio spots for Blue Nun Wines and several other advertising campaigns. Ever the supportive spouse, Stiller appeared in Meara's award-winning play "After-Play" in the mid-1990s.
Unlike many successful comedy teams, Stiller and Meara were able to pursue solo projects without creating any tension between the partners. While Meara enjoyed a long career on television and stage, Stiller made frequent supporting turns in major motion pictures during the 1970s, and then returned to movies with a vengeance in the late '80s and '90s following his success on "Seinfeld" and "King of Queens." He made his movie debut with an uncredited role as the father of the flower girl (played by daughter Amy) in the aforementioned "Lovers and Other Strangers." Other notable turns included a wise-cracking transit cop who helps Walter Matthau track down a quartet of subway hijackers in the superior thriller "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" (1974); a loudmouthed lush on board a doomed flight in "Airport 1975" (1975); and a hot-tempered hitman searching for a hapless target (Jack Weston) in a gay bath house in "The Ritz" (1976), Richard Lester's film version of Terrance McNally's Broadway hit (in which Stiller also starred).
Stiller's on-screen credits were relegated mostly to television during the 1980s; he co-starred with Richard Castellano in the short-lived sitcom "Joe and Sons" (CBS, 1975-76) and played the savvy maitre'd of an upscale New York eatery in "Tattinger's" (NBC, 1988-89). He also enjoyed a rare dramatic turn as a shady doctor who beguiled a downtrodden salesman (Robin Williams) in "Seize the Day" (1986), a terrific adaptation of the Saul Bellow novel which aired on PBS. But by the mid-1980s, Stiller was making inroads back to feature work, often in the company of his son Ben, who was making a name for himself as a comic actor and satirist. Their first film appearance together came in the Oscar-nominated short "Shoeshine" (1987), and continued for 11 more pictures, including the John Cusack comedy "Hot Pursuit" (1987, as a father-and-son team of pirates; the offbeat horror-comedy "Highway to Hell" (1992), with Jerry as a officious desk cop in Hell, Ben as Attila the Hun, sister Amy as Cleopatra, and Meara as the tragic Greek figure Medea; the children's comedy "Heavy Weights" (1995); the broad comedy "Zoolander" (2001), with Jerry as the sleazy manager to Ben's clueless male fashion model; and "The Heartbreak Kid" (2007), with Jerry as Ben's lusty father. Stiller also endeared himself to cult movie fans as eccentric joke shop owner Wilbur Turnblad, husband to Edna (Divine) and father to Tracy (Ricki Lake) in John Waters' PG debut "Hairspray" (1988). Stiller, in fact, made a cameo in the hit 2007 film version of the "Hairspray" musical as Mr. Pinky, owner of the plus-sized dress store that sponsors Tracy. Stiller also portrayed coach Vince Lombardi in a series of humorous commercials for Nike which featured famous moments and quotes from the football legend's career.
But it was one role for which Stiller would be remembered by people of all ages. In 1993, Stiller replaced John Randolph as Frank Constanza, the hyper-tensive and eccentric father to George Costanza (Jason Alexander) on "Seinfeld." Stiller's performance - a mix of vessel-bursting rage and bizarre phobias, which included household pests, the loss of his silver dollar collection, poisoning people, taking off his shoes, etc. - won over audiences so completely, that co-creator Larry David asked that scenes featuring Randolph as Frank be re-shot with Stiller in the role for syndication. For his performances as the cantankerous Frank, Stiller received an Emmy nomination in 1997 and won the American Comedy Award for Funniest Guest Appearance on a TV series in 1998.
Aside from providing George with years of mental anguish, Frank was also responsible for creating an alternative holiday called "Festivus" - which was actually the creation of Reader's Digest writer Dan O'Keefe, whose son Daniel brought it to "Seinfeld" when he wrote for the series. The "Seinfeld" version of "Festivus" expanded O'Keefe's original idea - which had been basically an alternative to the commercialization of Christmas - to include such "Seinfeld"-esque ceremonies such as performing feats of strength and airing of grievances, and even included its own miracles. The notion proved so popular that it became an actual celebration in certain circles - with Ben and Jerry's creating an ice cream flavor bearing its name. Stiller even penned the foreword to a book about the phenomenon, Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us in 2005.
Following the end of the most successful sitcom in history in 1998, CBS jumped at the chance to grab one of the peacock show's biggest scene-stealers. Frank Costanza was revived after a fashion when Stiller was tapped to co-star in "The King of Queens," a CBS sitcom starring stand-up comic Kevin James. Stiller's character, Arthur Spooner, was James' father-in-law and lived in the basement of his home with wife Carrie (Leah Remini). For all intents and purposes, Spooner was Frank Costanza, though without a wife to goad him into apoplexy, as had been the brilliant choice on "Seinfeld." Spooner did, however, share Frank's personality quirks, including an intense hatred of Halloween, Dick Clark (whom he claimed stole the idea for "Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve" from him). Where the characters differed was in Spooner's background; his volatile and childish behavior could be attributed to a cruel and abusive father (played by son Ben in flashbacks), and he occasionally exhibited a softer nature, mostly with his daughter or with Holly (Nicole Sullivan), the dog walker his children hire to "watch" him. In later seasons, Spooner would find brief romance with Veronica Olchin (Anne Meara), mother to "Queens" second banana Spence Olchin (Patton Oswalt).
In 2000, Stiller penned his memoir, Married to Laughter: A Love Story Featuring Anne Meara, which received largely excellent reviews. The duo became grandparents to children born to Ben and his wife, actress Christine Taylor, in 2002 and 2005, and received their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in February 2007.
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