The untold truth of Jerry Stiller

Jerry Stiller was a constant presence on film and television screens since the late 1950s. On the big screen, Stiller showcased both his comedic and dramatic skills in a diverse array of films, including The Taking of Pelham One Two ThreeAirport 1975, and Hairspray. Stiller's work on television was far more extensive, including dozens of talk show appearances in addition to countless guest-starring roles on numerous series through the decades, ranging from Murder, She Wrote to Law & Order.

For television viewers, Stiller is fondly remembered for his nine-season stint as Arthur Spooner on The King of Queens, portraying the eccentric father-in-law of star Kevin James' character. However, if there's one role with which he will always be associated, it's Frank Costanza, the short-stopping, Festivus-celebrating father of the almost irredeemable George Costanza (Jason Alexander) on Seinfeld

Given the longevity of Stiller's showbiz career and his mile-long list of IMDb credits, fans may be surprised by how much they don't know about this veteran actor and comedian, who died at the age of 92 in May 2020 from natural causes. Keep reading to discover the untold truth of Jerry Stiller.

Jerry Stiller and wife Anne Meara turned their marriage into a comedy act

Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara were aspiring young actors when they met in 1953, noted the The New York Times obituary of Meara, who passed away at 85 in 2015. Married in 1954, it wasn't until 1961 that the two would begin working as a comedy duo, using their marriage as a source of material. "Jerry started us being a comedy team," she said in 2008, via the Times. "He always thought I would be a great comedy partner. At that time in my life, I disdained comedians."

Initially performing in New York City nightclubs, Stiller and Meara became nationally known within a year, going on to perform numerous times on The Tonight Show and making 36 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, noted the Associated Press (via NPR). 

In a 1977 interview with People, the couple revealed why they decided to put the brakes on the act around 1970. "I love Anne, but if I had depended on her in my professional life, I would have lost her as a wife," said Stiller, with Meara adding: "I didn't know where the act ended and our marriage began."

Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

In 2007, husband-and-wife comedy duo Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara were given an iconic Tinseltown honor when they jointly received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. According to the Associated Press (via the Napa Valley Register), Stiller and Meara received the Walk of Fame's 2,328th star. In attendance were the couple's children, Ben and Amy Stiller, along with Seinfeld's Jason Alexander.

The star recognized their success as a comedy team as well as their solo achievements; Stiller has been nominated for an Emmy, while Meara was nominated for four. Both Stiller and Meara distinguished themselves as individual performers while reviving their joint comedy act whenever the opportunity arose, a scenario that actually brought them closer together as a couple.  

When Meara died in 2015, they had been married 61 years. As Stiller told People in 1977, the innate cultural differences between the two — he is Jewish, of Austrian-Polish descent; Meara's ancestry is Irish — was central in both their comedy and their relationship. "It occurred to us that we were an unlikely couple," said Stiller. "If there was any logic to it, we never would have gotten married in the first place."

Stiller and Meara's radio commercials sold a LOT of wine

The sharp improv skills of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara made them naturals for commercials. As People pointed out, by 1977 Stiller and Meara had done commercials for everything from "Lanier dictating equipment" to the Jack-in-the-Box burger chain. "We sell out with class," Meara told the magazine, adding, "We won't do a commercial unless it's funny and the product is decent."

The couple's most successful commercial deal was with Blue Nun wine, which they began plugging via comedic radio commercials in 1969. According to People, by 1977 they were in the midst of a three-year contract worth $300,000; during the period the couple recorded commercials or the brand, sales of Blue Nun rose "from 90,000 cases a year to over 800,000."

As Ad Age recalled, the commercials were the work of advertising agency Della Femina, Travisano & Partners, with the agency's Jerry Della Femina crediting the couple's brilliant ad-libbing for creating memorable spots that deviated hilariously from the scripts, usually a no-no in advertising. "The secret was that Meara and Stiller were able to do it," he said, adding, "And to our credit, we were capable of accepting it."

Jerry Stiller's love-hate relationship with the Knicks

Jerry Stiller was a lifelong fan of the New York Knicks, and over the decades had been a frequent presence at the team's home games in Madison Square Garden. 

Stiller and wife Anne Meara joked about his obsession with the team in a scripted comedy scene they wrote for the The New York Timesin which Stiller returns home and asks if she's recorded the Knicks-Lakers game on the VCR. "I think so," she answers. Replies Stiller: "You think so! This is a very important game!"

In a 2011 interview with New York Magazine, Stiller revealed he had recently returned to the Knicks fold after exiling himself from the team for years. "I really love basketball," he said. "But I was off because of that disaster trip they were on for so many years. It depressed me. But I'm back with Carmelo [Anthony], and I love this guy [Landry] Fields, who is a great rebounder. There's a new spirit to the team, and I went to a game the other night for the first time in eight years, and I had more fun that I could imagine."

Jerry Stiller wasn't Seinfeld's first Frank Costanza

Of all his various acting roles, Jerry Stiller will be forever remembered as Frank Costanza, hotheaded father of Seinfeld's George Costanza (Jason Alexander). However, when the character was first introduced in the sitcom's fourth season, actor John Randolph played Frank

As Stiller told the Television Academy, he had been offered the role but had to turn it down due to a commitment on Broadway, so Randolph was cast instead. A few months later, he received another offer for Seinfeld. This time he did it, admitting, "I needed the work." As Stiller recalled, he was initially instructed to play the character as "meek" so he'd contrast with actress Estelle Harris, playing Frank's loud, always-yelling wife. In rehearsals, however, Stiller felt it wasn't gelling. One day, out of frustration he changed things up; when Harris screamed at him, he erupted in anger and yelled back. Everyone loved it, and the Frank Costanza fans know and love was born.

Don't go looking for Randolph's Frank Costanza in reruns, however; so iconic was Stiller's portrayal, all Randolph's scenes were reshot with Stiller as Frank, edited into the episode when it aired in syndication.

He questioned the ethnicity of his Seinfeld character

One thing that had always puzzled Jerry Stiller was the ethnicity of Seinfeld's Costanza clan. Costanza is certainly a name with an Italian flair, yet the family appeared to be Jewish. Stiller joked about the disparity during a 2008 stage performance at Cornell University, reported the Cornell Chronicle. "How does a family that eats kasha, knishes and kneidelach have the name Costanza?" Stiller quipped. "I always tell people we were a Jewish family in the Witness Protection Program."

While neither the Costanzas' ethnicity nor religious affiliation was ever specified, Frank's greatest enduring achievement transcends both: Festivus, the non-denominational holiday devoted to gathering one's family together to "tell them all the ways they have disappointed you over the past year."

Long after Seinfeld left the air in 1998, Festivus maintained a foothold in pop culture; Stiller even wrote the forward for a book celebrating the faux holiday: Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us, written by journalist Allen Salkin. In Salkin's 2008 piece about the Festivus phenomenon for the The New York Times, Stiller proudly embraced his role as the father of Festivus. "I'll take that mantle," he said. "I'll wear my crown."

Seinfeld represented 'the best years' of Jerry Stiller's career

For Jerry Stiller, joining the Seinfeld family proved to be life-changing in many ways. Not only did it place him firmly in the pop-culture zeitgeist and introduce him to a new generation who'd never even heard of Stiller and Meara, but Seinfeld also came to be his most rewarding experience as an actor. "I'll never forget, on the first day of the shoot in front of the audience, Julia Louis [Dreyfus], Larry [David], Michael Richards, and the whole cast... surrounded me, wishing me well. And they were rooting for me. They were protecting me from the fear, 'cause this was something. And from that day on, it was the best years of my life as an actor," Stiller said in an interview with the Television Academy.

Being surrounded by that level of talent, he added, allowed him to unleash his creativity like never before. "Sometimes people can give you the feeling of courage," he added. "I never felt like I was a courageous actor... but I always said, there was no air between us. ... Whenever I came on with, at that moment, I had the freedom to do whatever it was."

He appeared in son Ben Stiller's movies

When Jerry Stiller's son, Ben Stiller, became a comedy star in his own right, the younger Stiller was able to bring his dad onto his projects. In fact, Jerry Stiller appeared in at least four of his son's films, starting with a role in his 1995 comedy Heavyweights, in which he appeared alongside Anne Meara. 

The elder Stiller next appeared in Zoolander. In the 2001 blockbuster fashion spoof and its 2016 sequel, the Seinfeld star hilariously portrayed Maury Ballstein, the backstabbing agent of male model Derek Zoolander (played by his son). He also appeared in the Ben Stiller-starring 2007 remake of The Heartbreak KidAccording to Ben Stiller, casting his dad in his movies was a no-brainer. In fact, according to Us Weekly, Ben praised his father as "the most naturally funny man in the world" during his acceptance speech after winning Best TV Movie/Limited Series Directing for his miniseries Escape at Dannemora at the 2019 Directors Guild Awards. 

Jerry Stiller recalled being directed by his son in Zoolander for The New Yorker, admitting Ben sought "perfection." "Ben was ahead of me, in a lot of ways," he said. "Everything I could never do, Ben could do."

Ben Stiller's 50th birthday brought out the best in his dad

According to a 2015 report in Page Six, Jerry Stiller, then aged 88, was in fine form while attending a surprise 50th birthday bash for son Ben Stiller, held at the Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan. 

"Ben's father turned up on the dance floor to [songs by rappers] Drake, A$AP Rocky and Kendrick Lamar," a source told the outlet, adding that the showbiz veteran also delivered a hilariously heartwarming speech. "It was a funny toast, and he told the crowd Ben had done far better than he ever could have," the source added.

The party was thrown by Ben Stiller's wife, actress Christine Taylor, while the guest list included the younger Stiller's Meet the Parents co-star Robert De Niro and his Zoolander co-star Owen Wilson. "He walked in with a Zoolander face," a party guest told Page Six of the birthday boy, referencing his movie character's signature "Blue Steel" glare. "He was super happy and pumped — he was very appreciative and thanked [Taylor] for the party."

The reason Jerry Stiller always gave money to panhandlers

In a 2011 interview with New York Magazine, Jerry Stiller and wife Anne Meara were asked an array of questions, including whether they give money to panhandlers in the streets of New York City. Meara said that they did, and Stiller agreed, explained that the reason harkened back to their own experiences in their early years, when they were impoverished struggling actors scrambling to make a living.

Stiller then recalled a painful experience from his hardscrabble days, when he had no money whatsoever to get himself back home from an audition. Eager to return to his apartment, Stiller approached a man he saw browsing at a newsstand, "and I asked him, 'Can you give me a nickel to get on the subway,' and he said to me, 'Get away from me, you bum.' And it's never left me."

Jerry Stiller was addicted to swimming

Speaking with New York Magazine, Jerry Stiller was asked to single out his favorite medication. That prompted him to declare, "I love swimming." His wife Anne Meara concurred, chiming in to agree that he's "good at that." 

In fact, Stiller told the magazine that he went swimming on a daily basis, but it wasn't simply the exercise he was after. As he revealed, it was also the physical sensation that he craved. "When I'm in the water I try to, not do laps, but I allow myself to be aware that I'm in the water and allow the feeling of being in the water at that moment, rather than thinking, 'I've got to get out of here and do my laps,'" he shared. 

Stiller also offered a psychological theory to explain what he enjoyed so much about being submerged in water: "I always feel like when I'm in the water, I'm back in the womb."

Jerry Stiller and his wife disagreed about Donald Trump

Back in 2011, long before Donald Trump had entered the political arena, he was merely a fast-talking New York City real estate developer and reality TV personality. At the time, Jerry Stiller and wife Anne Meara had differing — and quite surprising — viewpoints about the man who would go on to become America's 45th president. 

Speaking with New York Magazine, Meara insisted she wasn't a fan. "I don't like him. I think he's a greedy man," she said. Stiller disagreed. "I'm not going to say that at all," he countered, revealing Trump had hired the couple to perform "when we were flat on our back."

Stiller also recalled once being seated next to Trump at an event. During their conversation, Stiller was impressed that Trump "talked like a real guy... I like him because I know just what he is: a showman. He's a bit of a guy that wants to be in show business. I don't mind his hair; I think it's all part of the show. But then the other thing he said to me once, which I'll never forget, he said, 'I like your son.' For that I love him."

He was shaken by a health scare at age 91

In January 2019, Jerry Stiller made headlines when a health scare led him to be hospitalized. Radar Online was the first to report the news, claiming the actor — then 91 years of age — had experienced "stroke-like symptoms," categorizing his condition as "serious."

A followup report from the Daily News, however, painted a far less dire picture. According to the newspaper, Stiller was taken to hospital when "the person he was with grew concerned about his health." Doctors gave Stiller an extensive examination, and concluded it was a false alarm. "There are no signs of a stroke," a source told the outlet. "He's resting and they're going to send him home in a couple days. He's totally fine."

A friend of the family shared a similar update with Us Weekly"Jerry is fine. He had no signs of a stroke," the source said. "He's 91 — he had an episode and they took him to the hospital to be checked out. He's completely fine and is resting comfortably. He should be home in a couple of days."

Jerry Stiller lived in the same apartment for 50 years

A lifelong New Yorker, Jerry Stiller lived in the same apartment in Manhattan's Upper West Side for more than five decades. "We've been in our apartment since the day [son] Ben [Stiller] was born," he told New York Magazine. He and wife Anne Meara had previously been living in Washington Heights, north of Harlem, and decided that a more prestigious address would be advantageous for their burgeoning showbiz career. "We got a deal, when we moved in here we were paying $220 a month and today this apartment is a co-op and the price is out of range of any normal person," he explained.

"I had just enough money to put down one month's rent and one month's deposit because we were still struggling back then," Stiller told West Side Rag in 2016, noting that he also loved the neighborhood itself. "We used to have block parties here," he said, adding, "The camaraderie was incredible. There was no air between us, I'll use that expression. It was so wonderful here that you didn't want to leave. Real people live on the west side."