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'Fresh Air' Remembers Comedian And Actor Jerry Stiller


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today, we remember comedian and actor Jerry Stiller, who died on Monday from natural causes. He was 92. Jerry Stiller had success as an actor on stage and screen, then saw a career resurgence in comedy playing George Costanza's father on "Seinfeld." He also played Divine's husband in the John Waters film "Hairspray." Back in the Ed Sullivan era, he was known as half of the comedy team Stiller & Meara with his wife, Anne Meara. Their act played off what an improbable couple they made. He was short, schlumpy, Jewish. She was tall, attractive, Irish. Let's hear a sample from a live routine that came out on a record in 1967.


JERRY STILLER: (As Hershey Horowitz) I love you, Mary Elizabeth Doyle.

ANNE MEARA: (As Mary Elizabeth Doyle) Oh, I love you Hershey Horowitz.

J STILLER: (As Hershey Horowitz) Will you marry me?

MEARA: (As Mary Elizabeth Doyle) Yeah. I will. I will.

J STILLER: (As Hershey Horowitz) It'll never work.

MEARA: (As Mary Elizabeth Doyle) What do you mean it'll never work?

J STILLER: (As Hershey Horowitz) It's impossible.

MEARA: (As Mary Elizabeth Doyle) Of course it'll work.

J STILLER: (As Hershey Horowitz) My father's a Jewish bagel baker. Your father's an Irish cop.

MEARA: (As Mary Elizabeth Doyle) What difference?

J STILLER: (As Hershey Horowitz) What do you mean what difference? It's like a hot pastrami on white bread.

MEARA: (As Mary Elizabeth Doyle) Oh, come on.


MEARA: (As Mary Elizabeth Doyle) It doesn't matter.

J STILLER: (As Hershey Horowitz) What do you mean it doesn't matter?

MEARA: (As Mary Elizabeth Doyle) We love each other. That's what...

J STILLER: (As Hershey Horowitz) Love, schmove (ph) - it's a world of hate. Don't you understand that?

MEARA: (As Mary Elizabeth Doyle) Come on. Look, Hershey. It'll work out. The families will go crazy for each other.

J STILLER: (As Hershey Horowitz) They'll go crazy. That's what they'll do.

MEARA: (As Mary Elizabeth Doyle) Come on. I'll grab your mother. I'll hug her. I'll kiss her. I'll say, Mrs. Horowitz, you're terrific. I hear you make the best meshuggeneh ball soup in the world.


J STILLER: (As Hershey Horowitz) Matzo ball soup.

MEARA: (As Mary Elizabeth Doyle) Yeah, matzo ball.

J STILLER: (As Hershey Horowitz) Yes, yes, yes, that's it. That's it. You tell her that.

MEARA: (As Mary Elizabeth Doyle) And I'll say, gee, you know where we're going? Your son and I are going to go to Israel on our honeymoon. We're going to live on a knish for a couple of...


J STILLER: (As Hershey Horowitz) On a kibbutz - beautiful, beautiful.

MEARA: (As Mary Elizabeth Doyle) Kibbutz, knish - OK, yeah.

J STILLER: (As Hershey Horowitz) And I'll...

MEARA: (As Mary Elizabeth Doyle) Now I'll go to your father. I'll say, Mr. Horowitz, look at it this way. You're not losing a son. You're gaining a shiksa.


J STILLER: (As Hershey Horowitz) No, no, you're gaining a goy.

MEARA: (As Mary Elizabeth Doyle) No, I know. I knew that was wrong.

J STILLER: (As Hershey Horowitz) I'll go to your father. I'll wear a green tie.

MEARA: (As Mary Elizabeth Doyle) You don't have to.

J STILLER: (As Hershey Horowitz) I'll say top of the Irish to you, sir.

MEARA: (As Mary Elizabeth Doyle) Top of the morning.

J STILLER: (As Hershey Horowitz) Top of the morning to you, sir. It's a great day for the Jewish...

MEARA: (As Mary Elizabeth Doyle) No, Irish.

J STILLER: (As Hershey Horowitz) For the Irish when a fella like you can get a fella like me for a son-in-law.

MEARA: (As Mary Elizabeth Doyle) Good.

J STILLER: (As Hershey Horowitz) Horowitz - (singing) H-O double R O-W-I-T-Z spells Horowitz.

MEARA: (As Mary Elizabeth Doyle) Beautiful, beautiful. He'll love it, Hershey.

J STILLER: (As Hershey Horowitz) And I'll tell him we're going to go to Ireland on our honeymoon...

MEARA: (As Mary Elizabeth Doyle) Yeah.

J STILLER: (As Hershey Horowitz) ...To kiss the Kelley (ph) Stone.

MEARA: (As Mary Elizabeth Doyle) No, Blarney Stone.

J STILLER: (As Hershey Horowitz) Blarney Stone.

MEARA: (As Mary Elizabeth Doyle) What difference?

J STILLER: (As Hershey Horowitz) Whatever I have to kiss, I'll kiss. Oh, sweetheart.


BIANCULLI: Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara from their days as a comedy team. Terry Gross talked to Jerry Stiller in 1993 about his work with his wife, Anne Meara, becoming an actor and about his surprising success on "Seinfeld." They started with a clip from "Seinfeld." In this episode, George landed a job as a model - a hand model - and he's home with his parents pampering his hands. Jason Alexander plays George Costanza and Estelle Harris and Jerry Stiller portray his parents.


ESTELLE HARRIS: (As Estelle Costanza) I knew it. I always knew you had beautiful hands. I used to tell people. Frank, didn't I used to talk about his hands?

J STILLER: (As Frank Costanza) Who the hell did you ever mention his hands to?


HARRIS: (As Estelle Costanza) I mentioned his hands to plenty of people.

J STILLER: (As Frank Costanza) You never mentioned them to me.

JASON ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) Hand me an emery board.


HARRIS: (As Estelle Costanza) I always talk about your hands, how they're so soft and milky white.

J STILLER: (As Frank Costanza) No, you never said milky white.

HARRIS: (As Estelle Costanza) I said milky white.


HARRIS: (As Estelle Costanza) Georgie, would you like some Jell-O?

J STILLER: (As Frank Costanza) Why'd you put the bananas in there?


HARRIS: (As Estelle Costanza) George likes the bananas.

J STILLER: (As Frank Costanza) So let him have bananas on the side.

ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) All right, please. Please. I cannot have this constant bickering. Stress is very damaging to the epidermis


TERRY GROSS: When you play George's father, do you think of yourself as playing your own father?

J STILLER: Yeah, in a way I - it's all of the things that my father wanted me to do when I was just starting out as a teenager. When I told him I wanted to be an actor, for instance, there was a kind of a pallor that went over his face and a shock because there was no understanding of what I was talking about. And that immediately put me in another position in terms of the way they looked at me. And they wanted me to go to work, for instance. That was something that was really onerous to me. Why should I go to work? I wanted to be an actor, you see? And George is very much the idealist. Whatever his loves and his thinking is, it's counteractive to his parents. And my father said, why don't you be a stagehand? That's like being on the stage. At least you'll be working every night.

GROSS: Maybe it was easier for your father to understand the work of a stagehand than the work of an actor.

J STILLER: My father was a New York City bus driver. He was 5'3". He was probably the shortest bus driver in all of New York City. He was Jewish, which was not what most bus drivers were. And he had to put a Queens telephone book under his seat so he could see the road.

GROSS: (Laughter) I had to do that when I started to drive (laughter).

J STILLER: So anyway he never had...

GROSS: Of course, I wasn't driving a bus.

J STILLER: Yeah. And so the working aspect of life was very close to him. In other words, if you put in your 10, 12 hours a day, that meant to you were worthy of something. I, of course, looked at it like, you know, my God, how could anybody want to do a thing like that for the rest of my life?

GROSS: Now, in the movie "The Pickle," which was directed by Paul Mazursky, about a theater director - a film director played by Danny Aiello, you play Danny Aiello's agent. And it was fun to see you as an agent. And I was wondering if you could share with us any great agent stories from your life (laughter).

J STILLER: Well, there were times when we were starting out in the business, you used to make the rounds, you see. And rounds meant not only seeing agents but also seeing producers. And there was one thing that I always dealt with. Somebody says to me, how do you deal with rejection? I said, the way I dealt with rejection very simply was I kept knocking on every door that I could no matter what happens. And I always thought that if I got to see Lee Shubert, I would be able to get through and make my mark in this business. So believe it or not, I got to the Shubert office. I knocked on the door, and they had a receptionist - Mitzi Heihausen (ph) I still remember her. I said, I'd like to see Mr. Shubert. She said, who shall I say is calling? I said, Jerry Stiller. And I knew that Lee Shubert had come from Syracuse because I'd gone to Syracuse University. And the Shubert brothers were from Syracuse. She said, just a minute. She'd hit the intercom. She said, Mr. Stiller to see Mr. Lee. Send him right in. I walked in. I said, Mr. Shubert. He said, yes. I said, I'm Jerry Stiller. He said, yes. I said, I'm from Syracuse. He said, yes. I understand you and your brothers came from Syracuse. He said, yes. He said, what are you doing right now? I said, nothing. He says, when you're doing something, will you let me know? I said, yes.

GROSS: (Laughter).

J STILLER: And I walked out of the office, and I said, I just saw Lee Shubert. I couldn't get over the fact that I had made it this business. So I was never afraid to knock on doors or talk to people. Another was...

GROSS: So it's like a vaudeville routine.

J STILLER: Yeah, it is a little vaudeville thing. The other thing about the business and getting in to see people, there were agents who were very nice. There was an agent named Bill Liebling (ph). Do you want to go on like this (laughter)?

GROSS: Well, let me just ask you about the Shubert story. So when you got out of the office and this was, like, your big brush with Mr. Shubert, did you say to yourself, well, wait, maybe I should have lied, maybe I should have, like, puffed myself up a little bit more and taken advantage of the fact that I was in the office with him?

J STILLER: The man was so direct. You couldn't lie to him. He was looking right at your eye. And first of all, he was very small, and his head just came up over the edge of the desk. And you felt like it was a cannon being shot at you. He would - he could tell a liar in five seconds. I couldn't go any further than that. So I went back to my regular job, which was serving hot dogs at Nedick's, and orange juice.

GROSS: Now, this is the quintessential New York job, right? For people who don't know Nedick's, which I guess many people do. It's a national chain now, isn't it?

J STILLER: It used to be a big chain. Nedick's was located in Yankee Stadium. It was located in Grand Central. I worked a lot of Nedick's. And the reason I worked Nedick's was at 9 o'clock at night, I could get on the job, work till 6 in the morning, get a couple of hours' sleep, then knock on the doors and make the rounds, as they call it.

BIANCULLI: We're listening back to an interview with Jerry Stiller, who died on Monday at the age of 92. We'll hear more of this interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1993 interview with actor and comedian Jerry Stiller, who died Monday at the age of 92.


GROSS: It seems to me you entered a new phase of your career when John Waters cast you as Divine's husband in the movie "Hairspray."

J STILLER: Well, I had no idea that I would be playing opposite Divine as her husband Wilbur Turnblad with Ricki Lake. But somebody called and said, you want to be in one of the John Waters movies? I had never seen a John Waters movie, but I heard about John Waters. And they said, well, this was going to be a movie in which, you know, you could, you know, just be who you are. I says, well, all right. I took a wild shot, and I went down. So there I was getting into makeup during the first day shooting, and there sitting next to me was Divine. And the first thing he said to me while he was putting on his makeup - he had his dress on. He was - had no wig. He looked at me and said, how's Anne?

GROSS: (Laughter).

J STILLER: I said, she's fine. And a few minutes later, we were on the set shooting, and I was a little Wilbur Turnblad.

GROSS: For any of our listeners who don't know Divine, Divine was an approximately 300-pound man who always played women - or usually played women in John Waters' movies. And I'm wondering if playing in John Waters' film changed the way people thought of you. I don't think you'd done too much acting before that. And it was such a fun-spirited movie. And everybody in your family in that film - Ricki Lake and Divine and yourself - were really very...

J STILLER: Well...

GROSS: ...Very kind of, like, offbeat people, but you just - you fell in love with all the characters.

J STILLER: Well, the shocker is that...

GROSS: There was such nice people.

J STILLER: You're always shocked when people say, gee, I didn't know you did - you know, you did movies or anything like that because I had been doing it. But it's true. What happens is when you get into something that suddenly catches the public's fancy and you - if you're lucky enough to be in a hit and you don't know it's going to be a hit, something changes. You are recognized on the street. Like, when I went to see "Hairspray" at the Loews 83rd Street in New York, I walked into the lobby, and the manager said, you don't have to pay. Well, isn't that the thing that we all wanted when we're kids, you know, you walk in the movies for nothing?

Then when I went to go into the film house itself, the girl with the hot dogs gave me a free hot dog (laughter). And I had not seen the picture at all. I had not seen the movie, so I didn't know whether I was good in it or I was medium in it or whatever I was. So the shocker is to walk out of that place and then suddenly feel, well, you didn't know what you were going to get yourself into, but look how everybody treats you, you see?

GROSS: Did you like it?

J STILLER: Oh, I loved it.

GROSS: Good.

J STILLER: And then I went to see it again at the Waverly down on the Village, and that's where the people went nuts. In the lobby, I was besieged. I was there were with Anne, and people came up to me, and they said, you're Wilburn Turnblad; you're Ricki Lake's father. And I had no idea it was going to turn out that way, really.

GROSS: Was it hard for you to break out of the Stiller and Meara image years after you had stopped performing with your wife?

J STILLER: Well, we never really stopped. We still do it. And - but at the same time, we had come from, you know, theater backgrounds. But the need to go on my own and Anne to do her thing alone, it really kind of came out of the fact that our kids were born - Amy and Ben - and suddenly, here were a husband and wife working together. And suddenly, you were being asked to play Las Vegas, and what do you do? You pick up the two children and the nanny and you go to Vegas and you get ready to do the nightclub act?

I mean, it was easier for me because I'm the father, and the man, he's supposed to be the breadwinner. But for the mom? How could you be a mother and a nightclub performer? You're working on new material, and you had kids - where do you take the kids to school? So we made a kind of a concerted decision, which is very rare for both Anne and myself, to try to figure out a way to do everything.

And one of the things that happened was that she got a job on "Medical Center" with Chad Everett in which she was offered a major role. And I was in New York. She said, can I do this, Jerry? Would you be upset if I went out and did this role? I said, you do it, and I'll be with the kids. And lo and behold, she got nominated for an Emmy for that role. And then suddenly, we said, hey, we got a new career here, maybe, for Anne.

And the next couple of weeks, I was offered a role in "The Ritz" on Broadway with Rita Moreno and Jack Weston and F. Murray Abraham, my dear pal. And the show opens, and that becomes a hit. And I'll be damned if - suddenly, we say, hey, there's more to our lives than just doing the act. So we had the best of everything. Now we could set the kids off to school in New York. One of us will always be with them or the two of us were with them. And it worked out that we were able to do the act later, too.

GROSS: Now, you've told us before that your father did not want you to become an actor. So when you found out that your son Ben Stiller wanted to go into show business himself, what was your reaction?

J STILLER: I had a kind of a knot in my stomach because Ben was - could name all the parts of the body in Latin when he was going to - literally, in junior high school. And Amy was also kind of, like, caught up in this kind of - I guess it's academia. But what happened was, both of them decided at one point that they were going to do it. Ben dropped out after nine months. He said it's - school doesn't give me what I thought I wanted. I want to be a film director. And he said, I'm going to go and become an actor and be a theater person on my own. I says, Ben, if you do, if you quit school, I'm going to - I'm really going to kick your butt. I don't use those words. But he said, Dad, trust me; I will do it all on my own.

And would you believe? For two years, he went to classes in New York. He studied. He cleared up his skin, which was full of acne. He went to the gym. He lost weight. He became an actor. And he eventually tried out for "The House Of Blue Leaves" for John Guare. And he was - got the part. He was - appeared on Broadway. I used to come down, sneak in, see him in the second act, went crazy watching him. I loved it. I went nuts every time he got applause (laughter). I says, gee, isn't it great? My kid's doing great.

Meantime, Amy's working down at the 30th Street Playhouse off-Broadway in the little - some kind of a Little Red Riding Hood thing. And I go down taking movies of her. So I was thrilled watching both of them go into it. But every time they came home and said, you know, I didn't get this, I didn't get that, I went nuts.

GROSS: Yeah. Jerry Stiller, thank you so much for talking with us.

J STILLER: Thank you. And you're very kind.

BIANCULLI: That was the late Jerry Stiller speaking with Terry Gross in 1993. Stiller and Meara's kids, Amy and Ben, have gone on to their own successful careers in comedy and acting. Ben Stiller also became a filmmaker. In 2010, Terry talked to him about "Zoolander," a comedy which Ben had written and directed. He played the title role but also wrote a role for his father. Ben Stiller played Zoolander, a dimwitted male model, and Jerry Stiller was his agent.


GROSS: I want to play a short scene, and this is a scene with your father Jerry Stiller. And it's - and your father plays Maury Ballstein, head of Ball's Models (laughter).

BEN STILLER: That's right. That's - yeah.

GROSS: And this is a model agency that he helped build with the Zoolander...

B STILLER: Yes, a male modeling agency - Ball's Models, yeah.

GROSS: Male modeling agency, yeah. So at this point in the movie, your character Derek Zoolander wants to take a break from the fashion world. And so here's you with your father Jerry Stiller in a scene from "Zoolander."


B STILLER: (As Derek Zoolander) I want to do something meaningful with my life, Maury. I have deeper thoughts on my mind. The other day, I was thinking about volunteering to help teach underprivileged children to learn how to read, and just thinking about it was the most rewarding experience I've ever had.

J STILLER: (As Maury Ballstein) Derek, I don't think you're cut out for that kind of thing.

B STILLER: (As Derek Zoolander) I mean, maybe I could even have my own institute. We could call it The Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can't Read Good.

J STILLER: (As Maury Ballstein) What about us? We built this place together. Look out - tushy squeeze.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Maury.

J STILLER: (As Maury Ballstein) Derek, when I met you, you were a junior petite who couldn't book a g****** Sears catalog and who couldn't turn left to save his ass. Now look at you.

B STILLER: (As Derek Zoolander) I can turn left.

J STILLER: (As Maury Ballstein) Yeah. Right. Derek, please. Some male models go left at the end of the runway; others go right. You've got a lot of gifts, but hanging a Louie just isn't one of them.

GROSS: It must have given you such pleasure to say, OK, I'm now going to write a role for my father and direct him in it.

B STILLER: Oh, yeah. I mean, that's why I was laughing listening to that, just 'cause he's just so - first of all, the character of Maury is so far afield from my dad's actual personality (laughter) in terms of, like, you know, ever squeezing the tushy of a lady (laughter). I don't picture him doing that. But that's what was fun, was getting him into those situations. And he - you know, he really goes with it and goes for it. And it was - it's great. I'm really happy. Like, I'm kind of looking forward to, some day, my kids being able to see their grandfather in that movie because he's just - he's awesome.

GROSS: What was it like for you when your father was co-starring on "Seinfeld" and everybody was watching the show?

B STILLER: Well, you know, it really changed his life. I mean, he - you know, for years and years, my parents, you know, were successful as a comedy team and, you know, did "The Ed Sullivan Show" I think over 30 times and nightclubs and TV shows and all that, and they, you know, did really, really well. But then I think when "Seinfeld" happened for my dad, it just changed people's perception of him and to reach so many people - and I was really very, very happy to see that for him because I think he was really deserving of it, as I think my mom is, too.

So, you know, and I think it's - for him, you know, he thrives on work. I think he loves to work. It keeps him going. And then, you know, out of that came "King Of Queens" for him. And people love him. He's a naturally funny human being, and he's incredibly loved from that show. And so it was great. It was great to see that.

BIANCULLI: That was Ben Stiller speaking with Terry Gross in 2010. His mom Anne Meara died in 2015 at age 85. Jerry Stiller died this week at the age of 92.

After we take a short break, we'll hear Terry's interview with renowned cellist Lynn Harrell, who died last month, and I'll review a new Hulu comedy miniseries about the rise of Catherine the Great. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY AMADIE'S "IF I WERE A BELL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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