Jerry Stiller, father of actor Ben Stiller and best known for his Emmy-nominated portrayal of the outrageous and combustible Frank Costanza on NBC’s “Seinfeld,” has died of natural causes. He was 92.
Stiller’s time on the Jerry Seinfeld sitcom not only cemented his place in American pop culture. As he once recalled, it represented “the best years of my life as an actor.”
His death was announced by Ben Stiller, who tweeted early Monday: “I’m sad to say that my father, Jerry Stiller, passed away from natural causes. He was a great dad and grandfather, and the most dedicated husband to Anne for about 62 years. He will be greatly missed. Love you Dad.”
The elder Stiller’s role as the Festivus-celebrating, George Steinbrenner-hating, silver-dollar-hoarding father of George Costanza revived his career at the age of 66, earning a 1997 Emmy Award nomination and a 1998 American Comedy Award. After “Seinfeld” ended in 1998, he spent eight more years portraying the equally irascible Arthur Spooner on the CBS comedy “The King of Queens.”
Though Stiller was a classically trained actor who studied with Uta Hagen alongside Steve McQueen and performed Shakespeare, he built a career on more blue-collar characters drawn from his own upbringing as the son of a Brooklyn bus driver.
Born June 8, 1927, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Jerry Stiller was the eldest of four children raised in an impoverished Polish Jewish household. He found his comedic chops as a child eager to keep the peace and distract his parents from fighting. As an actor known for inhabiting bombastic curmudgeons, Stiller later admitted, “I stole all their material.”
Stiller found his calling as a teenager in 1940s New York, making his acting debut at 15 in James Thurber’s “Many Moons.”
Though his parents dismissed Stiller’s ambition, his love of show business stuck. At 19, he was so moved by a Broadway performance by actor John Randolph that he went backstage to introduce himself. Randolph encouraged him to pursue acting, and ironically it was Stiller who replaced him in “Seinfeld” after one 1993 episode.
After a stint in the Army toward the end of World War II, Stiller used the GI Bill to earn a bachelor’s degree in speech and drama from the University of Syracuse in 1950. He earned small roles on Broadway and in Shakespeare festivals, but Stiller’s career didn’t take off until he teamed up with his wife, the late actress Anne Meara, who died in 2015.
They were both struggling nobodies when they married in 1953. But by the early 1960s, they were “Stiller & Meara” on the nightclub circuit and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” famous for poking fun of their oddball marriage.
Stiller played up his heritage as a short Jewish boy from Brooklyn; Meara as the tall Irish Catholic princess from Long Island was his foil. Their act was a microcosm for America’s own simmering melting pot.
“Ed Sullivan brought us up to the level that we never knew we could get to — him standing there on the right side of the wings laughing, tears coming out of his eyes and then calling us over and saying, ‘You know, we got a lot of mail on that last show that you did,’” Stiller told The Times in 2010. “I said, ‘From Catholic or Jewish people?’ He said, ‘The Lutherans.’”
Through the 1970s and 1980s, Stiller and Meara wrote and performed a series of commercials, including the popular radio spots for Blue Nun wine. They also appeared on TV in guest-starring roles together and hosted “HBO Sneak Preview.”
“I used to think I was a comedian, and then when I started to think I was funny, my wife said, ‘You’re not very funny. You’re better off when you don’t try to be funny,’” he told The Times in 1994. “So then I started to be an actor, but I didn’t think I was that good of an actor. So who knows?”
Stiller also continued to appear on stage and in films, including the 1974 hit “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” originating roles in the 1984 Broadway version of “Hurlyburly,” and in John Waters’ 1988 film “Hairspray.” But by the early 1990s, his career was on the wane.
“I started to have a serious dialogue with myself about why it was I set out to be an actor,” Stiller told The Times in 1987. “You get to the point where you realize there is a cutoff date. This makes you want to work harder and more truthfully. You become less willing to hide, and more anxious to be remembered.”
When Larry David called him in 1993 to join the cast of “Seinfeld” as George Costanza’s father, he turned it down.
David called again a few months later. This time, Stiller accepted. But he quickly realized the role as written — a meek husband overpowered by his belligerent wife, played by Estelle Harris — just wasn’t funny. So Stiller started changing his lines.
“She’s screaming at me the whole time, nothing’s happening on stage,” he recalled in a 2008 interview. “So just before going on the air with a live audience, she started screaming, ‘You’re the one who ruined his life! You were never there for him! You were an absentee father!’
“Instead of saying my lines, I said, ‘You’re the one who slept in bed with him! You make him sandwiches every day and night. You coddled him!’ Everybody started screaming laughing,” he added. “And Larry David said, ‘Jerry, keep it that way.’”
Stiller continued to work through the 2000s, appearing most recently in 2016 alongside his son in “Zoolander 2” and voicing several animated series.
Stiller is survived by his son, Ben, daughter, Amy and two grandchildren.
Piccalo is a special correspondent.