Jerry Stiller, a classically trained actor who became a comedy star twice — in the 1960s in partnership with his wife, Anne Meara, and in the 1990s with a memorable recurring role on “Seinfeld” — has died. He was 92.
His death was confirmed on Monday by his son, actor Ben Stiller, in a tweet, who said his father had died of natural causes.
Stiller’s accomplishments as an actor were considerable. He appeared on Broadway in Terrence McNally’s frantic farce “The Ritz” in 1975 and David Rabe’s dark drama “Hurlyburly” in 1984. Off Broadway, he was in “The Threepenny Opera”; in Central Park, he played Shakespearean clowns for Joseph Papp; onscreen, he was seen as, among other things, a police detective in “The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three” (1974) and Divine’s husband in John Waters’ “Hairspray” (1988). But he was best known as a comedian.
The team of Stiller and Meara was for many years a familiar presence in nightclubs, on television variety and talk shows, and in radio and television commercials, most memorably for Blue Nun wine and Amalgamated Bank.
Years after the act broke up, Stiller captured a new generation of fans as Frank Costanza, the short-tempered and not entirely sane father of Jason Alexander’s George, on the NBC series “Seinfeld,” one of the most successful television comedies of all time.
Stiller was in fewer than 30 of the 180 episodes of “Seinfeld,” whose nine seasons began in 1989, and he did not make his first appearance until the fifth season. (Another actor appeared as Frank in one episode of Season 4, although his scenes were later reshot with Stiller for the syndicated reruns.) But he was an essential part of the show’s enduring appeal.
Frank Costanza was a classic sitcom eccentric whose many dubious accomplishments included marketing a brassiere for men and creating Festivus, a winter holiday “for the rest of us” celebrated with tests of strength and other bizarre rituals.
His most noteworthy characteristic was his explosive, often irrational anger, and most of the episodes on which he was featured found him, sooner or later, yelling, usually at either his son; his wife, Estelle, played by Estelle Harris; or both.
Just a few months after the final episode of “Seinfeld” (in which Frank had one last moment in the spotlight and, of course, spent most of it yelling), broadcast on May 14, 1998, Stiller was back on television playing another off-kilter father — a marginally more restrained version of Frank Costanza — on another sitcom, “The King of Queens,” which made its debut that fall on CBS.
A regular this time, he played Arthur Spooner, the excitable father of the wife (Leah Remini) of the working-slob central character (Kevin James), for the show’s entire nine-season run.
A guest star on several episodes of “The King of Queens” was Meara, whose character married his in the series finale. Younger viewers might not have known it, but their scenes together represented the reunion of one of the most successful male-female comedy teams of all time.
Stiller and Meara met in 1953, when they were both struggling actors, and married shortly afterward. They worked together in 1959 with the Compass Players, an improvisational theater group that later evolved into the Second City. They began performing as a duo in New York nightclubs in 1961 and soon made the first of about three dozen appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Visually, Meara and Stiller were a study in contrasts. She was statuesque and bright-eyed; he was short and stocky, and always looked a little lost. Another contrast formed the basis for much of their comedy: Her heritage was Irish-American and Roman Catholic (although she converted to Judaism in 1961); his was Eastern European and Jewish.
At a time when it was rare for men and women of different religions to date, let alone marry, Stiller and Meara broke new comic ground with their routines about the rocky but loving relationship of Hershey Horowitz and Mary Elizabeth Doyle, characters loosely based on themselves.
The first such sketch, as recounted in Stiller’s autobiography, “Married to Laughter: A Love Story Featuring Anne Meara” (2000), set the tone. One exchange began with Mary Elizabeth saying, “They’re having a dance tonight at my sodality.”
Hershey replied, “At your what?”
“Well, it’s a girls’ organization in my parish.”
“You mean like Hadassah?”
“It’s a girls’ organization in my parish.”
The comedy partnership of Stiller and Meara flourished for more than a decade and found a new outlet when they began doing commercials. But they eventually went their separate ways professionally — although they remained happily married and continued to perform together from time to time. Meara died in 2015.
Stiller worked steadily into the early 1990s but was less active than Meara, who had recurring roles on several television shows. Then came the call from “Seinfeld,” and his career resurgence began.
Gerald Isaac Stiller was born in Brooklyn on June 8, 1927, the first of four children born to William Stiller, the son of immigrants from Galicia, and Bella (Citron) Stiller, who was born in Poland. His father drove a taxi and later a bus. His mother was a homemaker.
Growing up in Brooklyn and on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, young Jerry was inspired to perform by seeing Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Durante in person, and began acting at the Henry Street Playhouse while attending Seward Park High School.
After serving in the Army during and immediately after World War II, he studied theater at Syracuse University under the GI Bill, learning about Greek tragedy and Shakespearean drama from the celebrated teacher Sawyer Falk. He began working in summer stock almost immediately after graduating in 1950, and was appearing Off Broadway a few years later.
Stiller remained active throughout his 80s. He was typically manic in a series of commercials for Capital One Bank, seen on television and heard on radio in 2012.
That same year, he played a group-therapy patient in the independent film “Excuse Me for Living.” In 2014, he provided the voice for the title character in an unorthodox animated television special, “How Murray Saved Christmas.”
In 2016, he reprised the role of the agent Maury Ballstein in “Zoolander 2,” the sequel to the hit 2001 comedy about a male model, starring and directed by his son, Ben Stiller.
“I’ve never thought of stopping,” Stiller told The Daily News of New York in 2012. “The only time you ever stop working is when they don’t call you.”
Stiller and Meara’s swan song as a team was a series of web-only video clips produced by their son and posted from November 2010 until March 2011. Each clip lasts about two minutes and consists of the two of them discussing a single topic. One topic is obituaries.
In that clip, Stiller says he is “shocked” that The New York Times might have already prepared their obituaries and wonders whether the newspaper is “up to date” on his having worked with Veronica Lake in a production of “Peter Pan” (about six decades earlier). And Meara reveals that years ago Stiller had persuaded The Times to publish her father’s obituary by falsely claiming that he had written material for their comedy act.
Stiller’s agitated response: “What you just said is going to get us in trouble with The New York Times! I may never get an obit!”
He needn’t have worried.