Jerry Stiller

by Eirik Knutzen | Jun 19, 2001
Jerry Stiller After five incredibly successful years (1993-98) on "Seinfeld" as the incredibly neurotic Frank Costanza, the impossibly neurotic George Costanza`s (Jason Alexander) recurring father, Jerry Stiller finally asked himself, "Where do I go from here?" He was pushing 70 at the time, enjoying a measure of financial independence and thinking about taking a well-deserved rest. Perhaps the rest of his life.

A few weeks later, the role of certifiable loony father-in-law/recent widower Arthur Spooner on "The King Of Queens" (Mon., 8-8:30 p.m., CBS) was dumped in his lap. Along with a generous offer, the CBS network let him know in no uncertain terms that there would be no show without him. Worried about his energy and stamina, plus reluctant to lock into a series contractually for five years or more, Stiller turned the network down. Devastated, the network promptly cast the Arthur Spooner character with another actor. Movie star Ben Stiller`s diminutive, grizzled father didn`t budge from his decision until the hard-pressed network offered him a "huge salary." His "replacement" was unceremoniously dumped.

Suddenly, the 74-year-old comedic actor`s objections became rather trivial.

"Believe it or not, this got to the point where I felt like I had everything in life," says Stiller, still stunned by the turn of events. "They coughed up big money and I had mortgages to pay. They appealed to my actor`s ego, and I thought it would have a short run like most sitcoms. I never dreamt this show would have a renewal after renewal. So, it was taking this job or sitting around watching it in reruns. And that`s the way it worked out - you get to be pretty close to honest at my age."

Stiller also admits that he doesn`t take down-time all that well.

"When I`m not working, destabilizing thoughts start taking over in my head," he laughs. "I know my psyche well enough to know that I always have to work. In `King Of Queens,` I challenge myself to come up with a character as significant as Frank Costanza. I think I`ve done it with Arthur Spooner, a man with a different identity each week who should be locked up."

Though hardly in the same category as coal mining or sewer maintenance, co-starring in a sitcom for 22 or 24 episodes per season is considered back-breaking work in Hollywood. Stiller breaks his back for a very high fee working two weeks on and two weeks off, from August until April. Whenever the L.A. set is dark, he flies back home to New York City in order to maintain strong bonds with his wife of more than 35 years, actress/screenwriter Anne Meara.

He also found out that the family that plays together stays together.

"Once in a while - not often enough - Anne and I get to act together, like on an episode of `King Of Queens` seven or eight months ago," Stiller explains. "Our daughter, Amy Stiller, was in it, too. Then Anne did a couple of scenes in (the upcoming) `Zoolander,` in which I co-star. Our boy, Ben, stars and directs. We have done a few other movies together, including `Hot Pursuit` and `The Suburbans.`"

It`s very exciting to work professionally with your kids, because nothing is automatic in film or stage, according to Stiller.

"When you`re shooting a scene, everything is happening in that moment and you`re not always sure about how to respond. When I`m on the set with 50 `Zoolander` crew members, I have to take orders from the boss -this kid directing a $20 million movie. Every time I didn`t do the right thing, he`d say, `Now, Dad, you`ll have to do that again.` But I could feel that little hesitation in his voice ... No other director talks to me like that."

The grizzled character actor is enormously proud of his children and blown away by Ben`s good fortune - including multimillion dollar paydays after the enormous box-office successes of "There`s Something About Mary" (1998) and "Meet The Parents" (2000).

"Ben has a wonderful movie-side manner and gets respect from his cast and crew," he says. "It`s an amazing thing to watch for a dad who gave him a Super 8 camera when he was 10-years-old."

Now the co-founder of a show business dynasty, Jerry Stiller was steered in the right direction by his father - a largely unemployed cab driver during the Great Depression.

"I was the oldest of three kids, so my dad would take me to the movies and vaudeville shows from the time I was 4 years old," he says. "No matter how poor the world was at the time, the actors and comedians made us laugh. Laughter was the coin of the realm and it awakened something in me."

But he also learned that the effects of show biz was but a temporary condition.

"When we went home, there was nothing there," he recalls. "My mother would scream at my father, `Where were you? You took him to vaudeville and we don`t have any food!` Life was hard on my parents and all the other people out of work during the 1930s, but I wanted to be like those people on stage making me laugh. A business that made poor people rich."

A nice Jewish kid, Stiller got to play Adolf Hitler in a high school play called "Hitler Goes To Heaven" - a comedy designed to raise money for War Stamps.

"I`ll never forget the laughs I got when Hitler reformed," he chuckles. "Making it in show business became my dream and I went after it."

He was lucky enough to be drafted into the Army just as the war came to an end, spent a short tour of duty in peacetime Europe and went to Syracuse University on the G.I. Bill.

After a stint as a drama and speech major at Syracuse University in New York state, the short and pugnacious Stiller formed a comedy team with the willowy redhead Bea Mortenson.

"Bea was a classy actress, who wanted to get married and have kids," he says, laughing. "But she definitely knew that I definitely had other ideas for her, so she got rid of me by pushing me off on her girlfriend, named Anne Meara. We were married six months later. It`s in my book, `Married To Laughter.`"

They spent nearly a decade as a successful comedy team, with 36 appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show" among their hundreds of credits.

"Then, we had the kids and decided to split up the comedy act in order to keep the family together," says Stiller. "We juggled our schedules to provide a sane home for our kids. One of us was always there when the other was on the road. Anne could do a TV show in L.A., then be back in time for me to do `The Ritz` on Broadway. We really wanted it all. We wanted fame, fortune and family, then found out there was no way to program it. You have to play it be ear."

(c) Copley News Service

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Author: Eirik Knutzen


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