Actor and comedian

Born: June 8, 1927;

Died: May 11, 2020.

IN a career lasting nearly seven decades Jerry Stiller, who has died at the age of 92, performed a remarkably wide range of roles, running the gamut from Shakespearean clown to a curmudgeon in Seinfeld, one of the most influential TV comedies ever made.

His CV also included a role in Zoolander, a 2001 comedy film starring, and directed by, his son, Ben.

“It’s been really heartwarming to see how much he touched people, how beloved by people he was”, Ben Stiller told a US TV news show recently, referencing the outpouring of condolences upon his father’s death. “When something like this happens, you really feel it. I know this would made him feel great”.

The eldest of four children, Gerald Isaac Stiller was born in Brooklyn to William Stiller, a bus driver and cabbie, and housewife Bella. The family moved around various neighbourhoods before settling in the Lower East Side when William won $5,000 in the ‘Irish sweepstakes’ during the Depression.

A formative experience was receiving free tickets to a Rockefeller Centre performance by Eddie Cantor, the star of stage, screen and radio. Stiller’s parents bickered frequently at home but, watching Cantor, they began to smile. Realising that humour could bring harmony to even the most disputatious of households, Stiller became determined to forge a career in comedy.

Following army service, he received a bachelor’s degree in speech and drama from Syracuse University in 1950. He also studied drama at HB Studio in Greenwich Village. In 1953 he appeared in a Phoenix Theatre production of Coriolanus, produced by John Houseman, who at the time was best known for his theatrical collaborations with Orson Welles.

In the same year Jerry met his future wife and comedy partner, Anne Meara. Both were looking for work. They met in the office of an agent who upset Meara by making a pass at her. Stiller followed her as she fled the office in tears, inviting her for a coffee and offering to pay. Meara instead told Stiller to steal the café’s cutlery as she needed a set for her apartment. From then on, they regularly stole the limelight together. They also started a family, raising two children, Ben and Amy, who herself became a well-known actor and writer.

Stiller and Meara began performing a double act in Greenwich Village nightclubs in 1961. Their gag-a-minute shows were similar to the classic vaudevillian routines of George Burns and Gracie Allen. They were also influenced by friends Mike Nichols and Elaine May, whose collaboration helped give birth to the more satirical and observation-based comedy that is now an American staple.

With Stiller’s Jewish background and Meara’s Irish Catholic heritage, they played up their ethnic differences to devastating comic effect. TV host Ed Sullivan caught the live act and invited them on his weekly TV variety show. They became something of a staple, appearing more than 30 times, often playing the characters Hershey Horowitz and Mary Elizabeth Doyle, who meet though an early computer-dating programme.

At times the double act and marriage seemed to meld together, causing Stiller to say at one point: “I didn’t know where the act ended and our marriage began.”

To preserve the integrity of their relationship they mostly stopped performing together in 1970, focusing on their independent careers. They did continue to record comedic radio advertisements and, beginning in 2010, appeared in web videos produced by their son, discussing pertinent issues of the day, including politics and TV reality shows. Meara died in 2015, aged 85.

As a solo performer, Stiller appeared in the New York Shakespeare Festival and more than a dozen Broadway plays. He had a guest role in 1970s TV hit, The Love Boat, and was a familiar face on quiz shows of the era. Later, he had parts in many of his son’s movies, including Heavyweights (1995), and The Heartbreak Kid (2007).

For younger audiences he is probably most famous for his scene-stealing role in the landmark 1990s sitcom, Seinfeld; he played Frank Costanza, a man whose blood didn’t merely boil, it erupted like lava.

This cantankerous creature tried desperately to stay calm around his nerdish son, George, played by Jason Alexander. One method he developed to gain tranquillity was to screech with irascible fervour the two words he had learned from a relaxation tape: “Serenity now.” He received an Emmy nomination for the role. When the show came to an end, he revved up the rancour once more when he played a similar part in another popular sitcom, The King of Queens.

“In real life”, Ben Stiller observed in his TV interview, “he was so quiet and sweet but he was kind of like this volcano underneath, that had a lot of emotion, and that would come out on Seinfeld in these characters, but it never really came out in real life. That was like his outlet”.

Of the experience of directing him on Zoolander, Ben added: “He took everything very seriously. Comedy, drama, whatever ... he really approached it methodically, so I tried to stay out of his way when he was working”.

Jerry Stiller once admitted that he found it almost impossible to live without humour. “Laughter is the answer to all the pain I experienced as a kid,” he said.