Some of the funniest moments on Seinfeld came from Jerry Stiller. It was amazing how good his comic timing was considering, to our knowledge, this was the first full time sitcom he was on. Maybe it came from his comedy team partnership with his wife Anne Meara. Probably their biggest production was superstar actor Ben Stiller. It was sad to hear of his passing this morning, as I realized he hadn’t been seen much since the end of King of Queens. We just wrote about him last week in Seinfeld – Characters Welcome as one of our favorite characters in that universe. I know he was getting up in age, but I was hoping he would pop up on one more sitcom that needed his help. He deserves his own post so let’s take a look at his career and what he meant to us as an actor/comedian.
Stiller and Meara
So when I was young I remember seeing Stiller and Meara on countless variety and talk shows, as a kid I’m not sure I grasped every joke but Stiller’s straight man to Meara was a throwback to Burns and Allen, with the serious one being male. They started at Second City and were a staple of the Ed Sullivan show, way before my time. I used to see them on Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Donny and Marie, Bob Hope specials, etc…they did disappear for awhile as a comedy duo. They both acted in other things, Meara did Archie Bunker’s Place and Stiller did movies. I remember him vividly from The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three with Walter Matthau. Footage from that film was used in The King of Queens. Stiller and Miller did star in a very short lived 1986 comedy The Stiller and Meara Show. I was a television junkie during those years and I don’t even remember the shows. Years later Jerry Stiller would be come a household name. Stiller and Meara reunited on The King of Queens and still had that chemistry. They were honored with a star on the Walk of Fame as a couple.
Seinfeld – Frank Costanza
Jerry Stiller was not the first choice for the role of Frank Costanza, it was character actor John Randolph who first played Frank. It was only for one episode and later on Stiller refilmed Randolph’s scenes. If you look at both actors it would be hard to believe Randolph would have made that role as iconic as Stiller, no offense to Randolph who did some great work of his own. Stiller’s timing was impeccable working off Jason Alexander and Estelle Harris. He was like a caged animal, he played Frank with a silent rage that you never know when he was going to explode or say something absurd. Larry David and Seinfeld gave him some of the greatest story lines to work with, the Bro/Mansierre, the Korean War veteran cook, Serenity Now!, and of course Festivus for the rest of us. Festivus will keep Jerry Stiller on the map for the rest of time. There is a great gag reel of Stiller yelling “You want a Piece of Me!” to Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her and Jason Alexander can’t keep a straight face. I still quote lines that Stiller made iconic on this show. My favorite of all-time may be “Jerry, it’s Frank Costanza. Mr. Steinbrenner’s here, George is dead, call me back!”.
The King of Queens – Arthur Spooner
How does an actor get two prime supporting roles back to back? Stiller spent almost 20 years doing a TV sitcom role. He must have been good at it. I am a huge The King of Queens fan and he is part of why I like that show. He played Arthur Spooner the live-in father of Carrie Heffernan. He definitely had more to do in this role than in Seinfeld where he could just act nuts. As Arthur Spooner he was definitely a little demented but he also showed a soft side, a shady side, a funny side, and sometimes a Costanza like rage. It’s shocking he has one Emmy nomination for Seinfeld and none for The King of Queens. He played off Kevin James’ lead character again with impeccable timing. He had some great moments on this show too, thinking the Peanuts comic strip was about him or wine-and-dining Doug’s mother. Surprisingly it was his interaction with the other supporting characters that was comedy gold, him and Patton Oswalt for instance pretending to be father and son or creating a new holiday song. Lou Ferrigno playing Lou Ferrigno also worked out great as Arthur tries to feed him a script he has written. It also seemed like Stiller did just enough to make Arthur shine. Also he got to work with his wife Anne in 2 different roles, his son Ben for an episode and his daughter Amy who popped up as different characters multiple times.
MG: I saw Jerry Stiller in a few King of Queens episodes, but otherwise I knew him almost exclusively from his performance as Frank on Seinfeld. I can’t think of an episode with Stiller in it that was not comedy greatness. It’s so true that his genius was timing. He didn’t always need to explode in a rage to be funny, sometimes his quite-spoken lines hit home just as well. He also understood physical comedy, which is why his interactions with Michael Richards as Kramer were some of the best scenes in the whole show (the Mansierre epidode and when Kramer stayed with the Costanzas come to mind). He left an indelible legacy making a great show even greater.