Maybe you recognize him as Ben Stiller’s dad or perhaps you know him as grumpy New Yorker Frank Costanza on the hit series “Seinfeld.” Regardless of how you remember him best, there is no denying that Gerald Isaac ‘Jerry’ Stiller was a comedy legend.
The loss of a legend
On May 11, Ben Stiller publicly announced on Twitter the passing of his beloved father at the age of 92.
Stiller had the ability to make his colleagues break character and fall into uncontrollable laughter only to then try keep a straight face and recover the scene.
He was so adept at playing eccentric and animated characters with such authenticity that it often left us wondering how he really was as a person.
But Stiller was a New Yorker through and through. People that knew him and worked with him often recount that amazing “chutzpah” his public persona was known for, while also describing him as a genuinely kind and sweet man.
From “Seinfeld” alum and “King of Queens” stars, former cast members and colleagues paid tribute to him throughout the week.
Colleagues, fans and associates expressed an outpour of condolences and grief online with memories and anecdotes about the Stiller they knew.
Mike Bloomberg, Cynthia Nixon, Ricky Gervais, Jimmy Kimmel, Andrew Cuomo, Mark Hamill and many more honored him on social media, describing him as a kind, loving man who was both a brilliant actor and a New York icon.
“Life can take you to funny places”
Speaking to Esquire magazine in 2005, Stiller reflected on his entertainment career which began in the mid-1950s.
Most die-hard comedy fans are familiar with Second City improv, a comedy company that formed on the cusp of the early sixties.
The troupe became known for nurturing major comedic players such as Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Mike Meyers and more recently Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Stephen Colbert.
Second City was the Ivy League of comedic talent, and Stiller was right there in the beginning.
Before Second City was formed though, there were the Compass Players which is where Stiller got his start along with his wife and comedy partner, Anne Meara.
After leaving the improv group, Stiller convinced Meara to perform as a duo, which eventually became a popular act known as “Stiller and Meara.”
Stiller told People magazine in 1977, “People would say to Anne, ‘Heh, you’re married to him?’ I thought we could use it.”
Although Meara was an aspiring actor who didn’t consider herself much of a comedic talent, the pair proved to be a huge success as a duo, performing in clubs across New York and eventually on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Their ongoing shtick of “Hershey Horowitz and Mary Elizabeth Doyle, a short Jewish man and a tall Catholic woman who had virtually nothing in common except their love for each other,” made audiences fall in love with the unlikely pair.
They carried their act over to radio commercials, a short radio sketch comedy bit called, “Take Five with Stiller and Meara” and a 1986 sitcom named “The Stiller and Meara Show.” The couple were married for more than 60 years until Meara’s death in 2015.
“You want a piece of me? You got it!”
Then there was Frank Costanza, a character that was developed and played by Stiller on perhaps one of the greatest sitcoms ever, “Seinfeld.”
Describing how he landed the role:
“I was not the first father on Seinfeld. There was another father, whom I replaced. I was out of work at the time. My manager had retired. I was close to seventy years old and I had nowhere to go. I get this chance on Seinfeld. I hadn’t even seen the show. The idea was for Estelle Harris, who was the screamer, to be the boss lady of the Costanza family. And I was supposed to be her Thurberesque husband. The part called for me to wear a bald wig to look like George and to act very meek. But after a couple of days I realized that acting meek was going to get me fired just like the last guy. On the fourth day, I said to Larry David, ‘This ain’t workin’. Can I do it my way?’ The scene started and Estelle began screaming at me, ‘You’re the one who ruined his life! You’re the one who wasn’t a good role model! You’re a lousy father!’ Only this time I shot back, ‘You’re the one who made him sandwiches in bed! You’re the one who coddled him and treated him like a baby!’ All the cameramen broke out laughing. Then Jason [Alexander] came over and said, ‘Don’t be afraid to hit me.’ I said, ‘But you’re my son. You’re thirty-five years old! I can’t do that.’ What the hell. The next time Jason said, ‘Dad, can I have the keys to the car?’ Bang! I gave him this whack. Everybody screamed. Then Estelle went over to Larry and said, ‘Can I hit him, too?’”
Aside from becoming a fan-favorite, Stiller was a force to be reckoned with on set. Julia Louis-Dreyfus shared a moment on Twitter that gave us a glimpse of what it was like to work with him, tweeting, “The truth is that this happened all the time with Jerry Stiller. He was so funny and such a dear human being. We loved him.”
Among our favorite Frank Costanza moments, we can’t forget “Serenity Now!” Despite the episode being aired in 1997, this scene is still popular today, appearing in GIFs and memes across the internet.
Of course there was the “Festivus for the rest of us” episode where we learned of Costanza’s own invented holiday created to rival Christmas.
Although Stiller set his sights on retirement when “Seinfeld” came to an end, in 1998, comedian Kevin James convinced him to join the cast of “King of Queens” as James’ cranky father-in-law, Arthur Spooner.
Stiller had great praise for the show, revealing that it had been a welcomed challenge. “This was an opportunity for me, for the first time, to test myself as an actor because I never saw myself as more than just a decent actor.”
Family always came first
Most people are amazed at the longevity of Stiller and Meara’s relationship – both romantic and professional.
Speaking to People Magazine in 2000, Meara recalled meeting Stiller saying, “I really knew this was the man I would marry. I knew he would never leave me.”
When Meara passed away in 2015, Stiller said plainly, “I miss her.” He spoke of their relationship saying, “There were no walls between us in any way. We both knew what the other was thinking even when we weren’t listening.”
Stiller is well known to young generations as the father of both actor Amy Stiller and also Ben Stiller, who have carried on the family’s comedic legacy as writer, director and star of a long list of successful films like “Zoolander,” “There’s Something About Mary,” “Night at the Museum” and the wildly successful “Tropic Thunder.”
The Stiller’s were known to be close, often working together on various projects. Their rapport alone made us laugh, like in this father-son moment from early in Ben Stiller’s career:
Stiller went on to be recognized for his achievements in events like the New York Friars Club of Jerry Stiller in 1999.
Stiller and Meara were both awarded the “Made in NY” Mayor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2012 at an event with presentations from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and their two children. There, Ben Stiller summed up his family by saying, “Show business is important, but family always came first.”
Comedian, actor, husband, father, mentor and friend – Stiller will not be soon forgotten, nor the legacy he has left behind.