Ben Stiller spoke about his late father Jerry Stiller’s comedic legacy, his father’s personal and professional relationship with his wife and comedic partner, Anne Meara, and how he treated Seinfeld like it was Shakespeare, in an extensive interview with The New Yorker.
The interview was conducted in the wake of Jerry Stiller’s death last week at the age of 92. Meara died in 2015.
Ben Stiller and his sister, Amy, who’s also an actress and comedian, grew up in a house where comedy was the family business: The elder Stiller and Meara worked extensively together and apart, touring the country, appearing in movies, TV shows, and plays, and making regular appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show. But Ben said show business wasn’t something his parents left at the front door. “It was the fabric of our lives,” he said, noting that his parents had a room in their New York City apartment where they would hole up together to write and improvise.
“They had a sketch where they hated each other,” Stiller recalled. “And they would just talk about how much they hated each other. And my sister overheard, and really thought that they hated each other. And then, another time, hearing them arguing and thinking it was rehearsing a sketch, and it wasn’t. So that was part of the energy in the household. They were very different people, but they were so, so devoted to each other. A very beautiful and imperfect relationship, as every relationship is.”
As a kid, Stiller said, he was always attracted to performing and directing, and noted that his parents guided him in different ways. He described his dad as “very overprotective” but nurturing and more than willing to offer heaps of advice, while his mom took a “hands-off approach” that was “the more practical way, really, because you do have to go through that on your own eventually.” While Stiller said that he would sometimes resist his dad’s help — as any teenager or young adult is wont to do — he also recalled some of his own early talk-show appearances, and how he actively sought out his dad’s help.
“When my dad died, I was looking at some old clips of the two of us on Conan, like 25 years ago,” Stiller said. “And I look at myself, like, ‘What was I thinking? Who is that person?’ And I’m remembering that of course I wanted my dad on there with me, because I knew my dad would be funny. And I would dread the talk-show appearances, and it was like cheating to ask him to come and help.”
Later in the interview, Stiller spoke about one of his dad’s most famous roles, Frank Costanza, father of Jason Alexander’s George Costanza, on Seinfeld. The role came at the perfect time for the elder Stiller, providing not just a late-career boost at a time when, as Ben put it, “the phone wasn’t really ringing,” but ultimately a career-defining part.
“So, for someone who’s thrived on work and thrived on being funny and having an interaction with an audience, it really changed everything for him,” Stiller said, adding: “When you see the tributes that the cast members have given to him — he was so loved by those people because his process was so connected to other actors. He loved working with those actors, and he would prepare like he was doing Shakespeare. He would break it down, a sitcom script, and figure out, ‘Why am I saying this? What’s the motivation for this character? What’s his history?’ So it came out of him putting everything into it, and not trying to be funny. And yet, of course, it came out so funny because he was just putting everything into it. And it was just like the amalgam of who he was, as a person.”
At the end of the interview, Stiller shared one of his dad’s lesser-known parts that remains one of his favorites to this day: A minor role as a cop in the 1974 train-robbery movie The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. “He was just so good in that film,” Stiller said. “And he’s not doing a lot of comedic shtick or anything, but he’s very funny, very New York, and very real. And, in the very last scene in the movie, with Martin Balsam, I just love him. He’s in his transit-cop outfit, with his cap tilted off to the side, and a cigarette in his mouth. And he never smoked, ever, in life. But I love that image of him, and I love what he is in that movie. And kind of his alternate film career that he might have had, too. He was really good.”