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Patriarch of Comedy’s First Family Still Entertaining After Five Decades

September 28, 1999
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Jerry Stiller won several awards for his portrayal of the irascible Frank Costanza on “Seinfeld” from 1993 to 1998. In a barking voice, he demanded that his TV son, George, and the other characters around him accede to his demands.

In real life, his wife and other family members say, Stiller is quiet, low-key and more of a pussycat than a bulldog. “He’s a softy,” reveals his wife, actress and playwright Anne Meara. “He doesn’t shout at home or throw fits like his TV characters.”

Stiller is the patriarch of a family of entertainers. Along with Meara, he has been amusing audiences for five decades, and now the legacy continues with their talented son, Ben, and daughter, Amy.

When “Seinfeld” ended, Stiller figured he would go back to New York and create an autobiographical one-man show, which he still plans to do.

“My show,” Stiller recently explained in his surprisingly quiet voice, “would include stories about working with Anne, and all of the conventions of being on the road, playing nightclubs, `The Ed Sullivan Show,’ how Amy and Ben traveled with us, and what it’s like to be a dad, a mom and a theater person at the same time.”

Stiller has also been working on a biography.

“The key to the book,” he said “is telling the story of a kid who wanted to be an actor, coming out of the Lower East Side of New York, and idolizing the Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Eddie Cantor. And how I performed a dream, so to speak, in my own way.”

But his one-man show and book deal have taken a back seat to the television world he loves. Last season he moved into a new role as the meddling father-in- law Arthur Spooner on the popular new show “King of Queens,” which had its 1999 fall season premiere Monday on CBS.

In the sitcom which debuted last fall, Stiller skillfully plays up the laughs as a recent widower who moves in with his son-in-law, Doug Heffernan (Kevin James), and daughter, Carrie (Leah Remini).

“From the first day on the set, everybody treated me like the Dalai Lama of comedy, the cast and the producers kept encouraging one another, the writing became more intriguing and it became less of a job and more about the fun of acting,” Stiller said.

Finding meaning in acting is nothing new for Stiller or his wife. Stiller and Meara is the name of the legendary comedy duo who started out in the early 1960s in the Compass Players in Chicago, which later became the famous improvisational group Second City.

They went on to perform their shtick in every nightclub in the United States and appeared a record 36 times on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

In addition they starred in numerous Broadway, film, TV and radio roles together and apart. Stiller’s feature film credits include “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” “Hairspray” and “Airport ’75” while Meara received rave reviews for her roles in “Fame,” “The Boys From Brazil” and “Awakenings.”

In fact, they never seem to tire of working as a team and performed together in the new Joan Micklin Silver film, “The Fish in the Bathtub.”

After 44 years of marriage, many of them working side-by-side, they say they’re still in love with each other. Meara confides that she misses her husband when he is commuting from their home in Manhattan to the TV studio in Los Angeles where “King of Queens” is taped. They talk on the phone constantly. “He doesn’t like it when we are apart from one another,” Meara confessed. “He’s very romantic; much more romantic than me.”

While funny business is the family business, an important part of their family bond is built on strong Jewish traditions. Meara converted to Judaism early in their marriage, and their children were brought up in a Jewish household. “We’re what you would call Jewish in our feelings about life,” Stiller explained.

Their children went to Jewish schools, studied Hebrew and their son, Ben Stiller, had a Bar Mitzvah. “Where they take their lives religiously is entirely up to them of course, but at least they know where Anne and I stand in terms of our background. It was more Anne than anyone else who said, `I want my kids to be brought up Jewish.’ So I had a very wonderful, easy kind of situation. I never asked Anne to convert to Judaism; she did it voluntarily.”

Stiller, who also enjoys sharing a short Yiddish song with new friends, took a course in Yiddish in New York several years ago. “Somehow or another, this wonderful teacher got us in touch with everything that we heard our mothers and your uncles talking about that we never really knew could stay with us.” As a result Stiller has read some Sholem Aleichem stories in Yiddish for books on tape.

Their son, Ben Stiller, is a prominent film actor and director, and their daughter, Amy Stiller, is a stand-up comedian and actress who has co-starred with Jerry at several regional theaters and has been a guest star on her father’s sitcom.

Ben, 33, first came to public attention in the 1985 Tony-award winning production of “House of the Blue Leaves” on Broadway. Following that, he contributed sketches to “Saturday Night Live,” joining the show’s cast for a brief run as a featured player. He went on to write and direct an MTV comedy special, which led to the creation of “The Ben Stiller Show,” written, produced and starring Ben for MTV. The show later moved to Fox for 13 episodes and was recognized with an Emmy for comedy writing.

Ben’s movies include directing and starring in “Reality Bites” as well as acting in “Flirting With Disaster” “Empire of the Sun” “Fresh Horses” “Next of Kin” and “The Cable Guy.”

Ben recently signed a deal with Fox 2000 Pictures under which he will write, produce and direct under his own banner: Red Hour Films.

When it comes to family talent, there seems to be a bottomless well here.

Meara’s first play, “After-Play,” ran off-Broadway as well as in several regional theaters around the United States and is gaining attention in other countries, including Germany.

Meara was awarded the 1995 Outer Critics Award for playwrights. Her second play, “Down the Garden Paths,” will have its world premiere starring veteran actors, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J. from Nov. 20-Dec. 19 and will play in the winter of 2000 to the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut.

Jerry Stiller is hopeful for a second hit and says he takes great pride in his wife’s writing ability. “She has a rare gift,” he says proudly.

“Down the Garden Paths” is about one special evening in the life of prize- winning author Arthur Garden and his family who gather together to celebrate the success of his latest book, “Alternate Routes.” But in a night filled with memories and dreams, unexpected twists and turns will show the Garden clan what might have been … and lead to surprising new possibilities.

Like her other play, admirers say this one is achingly funny and profoundly moving.

Stiller said that “Down the Garden Paths” is a different kind of a play from the first. “It is very funny and at the same time a now-type of play dealing with modern physics,” he explained. “Of course Amy and Ben will be there for the opening night. We will all be there to cheer Anne on. After all, that’s what family is all about.”

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