Jerry Stiller looks back on 60 raucous, riotous years of comedy.
When it comes to sitcom dads, Jerry Stiller has played two of the loopiest: Frank Costanza, George’s easily agitated, screwball pop on Seinfeld, and irritatingly loud and delusional Arthur Spooner, Carrie’s dad on The King of Queens.
The roles would cap a 60-year career that included — besides television — Broadway, film and decades playing one half of the sketch-comedy team of Stiller & Meara, with his wife, Anne Meara. Together they did nightclub gigs and, in the 1960s, were semi-regulars on The Ed Sullivan Show, making 36 appearances.
But it was the role of Frank Costanza on Seinfeld that would bring him the greatest popularity. When that series ended, he became eccentric Arthur Spooner, residing not so peacefully in his daughter and son-in-law’s basement.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Stiller was inspired by comedian Eddie Cantor on radio. He studied acting at Syracuse University, earning a degree in speech and drama.
After he and Meara wed in 1954 (their children are writer-actress Amy Stiller and writer-producer-actor Ben Stiller), the pair teamed up professionally as well.
Meara, who died in 2015, costarred in Archie Bunker’s Place, among other television series. Meanwhile, she and Stiller cowrote and performed witty radio commercials.
Stiller, who celebrated his 90th birthday on June 8, recently chatted with emmy contributor Jane Wollman Rusoff in his Manhattan apartment, which offers an exquisite view of the Hudson River. Soft-spoken and funny, the comedian reminisced about his life in television.
The Ed Sullivan Show (1963–70)
“Ed used to stand on the side of the stage and watch everyone as they were doing their acts. Whenever he laughed, the audience laughed.
“We were on Sullivan so many times that we ran out of sketches. Ed said, ‘Do the old ones.’ So we did. We even performed on the show 11 days after Anne delivered Ben.
“Anne came up with the sketches. She knew what was funny. The big thing with Ed was, the comedy had to be something that people would laugh at, but he was afraid of material that was off-color. If anyone wanted to do that, he would nix it.
“He did that with us only once. He got mad at a sketch we wanted to do about astronauts being in space a long time and the cleaning lady having to clean up their shit: ‘That sketch is about shit! You can’t do that on television. You’ll lose the audience,’ he shouted. He made us drop the whole thing. We had to do what he said, or we’d lose the job.”
“When you’re an actor, you’re looking for work most of the time. John Randolph dropped out of the role, and I was needy enough to do an interview to replace him.
“John had played Frank Costanza as a milquetoast, a very quiet nebbish. Frank’s wife Estelle [Estelle Harris] was a yenta. She was from Pittsburgh, which is different from being a yenta from Brooklyn. Estelle did a very high voice — more like a screech — for her character. She’d yell at Frank: ‘You don’t know what you’re doing! What’s the matter with you? What kind of man are you? You eat cake in bed!’
“The producers thought that because Estelle was so loud and always screaming at Frank, it would be a good contrast for him to be quiet. But I had my own ideas about Frank. During rehearsals for the first episode I was in, I started shouting back at Estelle. I became an overbearing bully. At one point, when George [Jason Alexander] asked if he could use my car, I slapped him on the head with the palm of my hand. There was a huge roar of laughter from the crew.
“At the next rehearsal, Jason said, ‘Hit me again! It’s funny!’ Bam! I slapped him on the head and a roar came up.
“Estelle said, ‘Can I hit him too?’ Larry David [Seinfeld co-creator and executive producer, who was directing the episode] said: ‘Only one person can hit Jason at a time.’
“My version of Frank was very loud and vociferous. In one episode, his doctor was worried about all his mishegas and gave him a tape to play when he feels his blood pressure going up: ‘Whenever you get angry and upset, here’s something that will cool you down and control your emotions. Just say, Serenity now, and you’ll be more relaxed.
“So, I started screaming, ‘Serenity now! Serenity now!’ It became the call of the wild.
“In ‘The Rye’ episode, Estelle, George and I went over to George’s fiancée’s snooty parents’ house for dinner. As a gesture — to show I was a good guy — I brought them a marble rye bread. It was very long, as marble ryes were in those days. But they never put it on the table. So I stole it back.
“Shooting that episode, my hip was giving me a lot of pain. Three weeks later, as I was being wheeled into the operating room for surgery, a medical assistant gave me a cassette tape of him doing voiceovers. He asked, ‘Can you get this to your agent?’”
The King of Queens (1998–2007)
“What kind of guy was Arthur Spooner? He was a meshugena — a crazy guy. At first, I turned down the role, so they hired the comedian Jack Carter. But it didn’t work out and they asked me again. I was out of work with nothing coming up. Some actors, like me, are insecure. I needed a job, so I decided to take this one.
“Jack had played Arthur more laid-back. I played him over the top. Arthur wanted to be an actor, but the rug got pulled out from under him, and he became Arthur Spooner, who lives in his daughter and son-in-law’s basement. He was always romancing the old ladies and hoping to get lucky.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2017