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Jerry Stiller Was a Decent Man

Jerry Stiller was one of those mensches from a bygone era who is almost hard to believe in now, as startling to encounter as a member of a species thought to be extinct walking into your living room.

Jerry Stiller as Frank Costanza in Seinfeld.

The actor and comedian Jerry Stiller died on May 11, 2020 at age ninety-three after a remarkably long career. A beloved figure, he’s generally known among recent generations for his role on Seinfeld, playing George Constanza’s irascible father, Frank. Senior citizens who loved Stiller probably retain their fondness for the old comedy duo Stiller and Meara, which paired short, Jewish Stiller with his tall, Irish-American Catholic wife Anne Meara in what Stiller felt would be an inherently funny combo of opposites. (Actor-writer-director-producer Ben Stiller of Cable Guy–There’s Something About Mary–Zoolander–Meet the Parents–Tropic Thunder fame is their only begotten son.)

Stiller also earned the lasting affection of socialists because of his lifelong progressive politics and his early support for single-payer health care. This is demonstrated in a pro-single-payer video that Stiller and Meara made way back in 1994.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JleHWFEz-gQ

Jerry Stiller was one of those mensches from an earlier era who is almost hard to believe in now, when they’re as startling to encounter as a member of a species thought to be extinct ambling into your living room. But believe it or not, there used to be an American strain of decency, even serious virtue, running through the culture. If you read up on the Civil War to any extent, you encounter a lot of it.

The strain steadily thins over the generations, but you can still find it in old memoirs here and there. Jerry Stiller’s memoir, Married to Laughter, is loaded with it. Of course, it’s his own version of his life story, so you might be inclined to doubt him when he describes scenes of his own toughness, bravery, kindness, good sense, strong work ethic, and immense capacity for love and friendship. But then again, he’s right there describing many scenes of his own humiliating failures, too, especially in his youthful quest to be “a hero” in daily life, in itself an old-fashioned goal. Stiller was the short kid who’d fight the much bigger kid over a matter of principle, who grew up to be the short Army GI during World War II who’d fight the much bigger GI who’d insulted him with an antisemitic slur.

Stiller comes across as trustworthy in his memoir. Even his bragging is sweetly straightforward, such as when he quotes, in full, particularly good reviews he got for his early stage performances. He seems more than happy to share all his faults and foibles, too. He tells us, for example, that he failed to get an erection during his first sexual encounter, with a sex worker whose feelings were quite hurt (though he tried to explain it was only because she reminded him of his mother).

Jerry Stiller’s mother was a harsh, miserable, suffering woman, who responded to his proudly showing her his name on a marquee for a Broadway show with “Big deal. Let’s go home.” Yet Stiller attended her faithfully during her final illness and gave his only daughter his mother’s name. (Okay, middle name only. He’s not that much of a saint.)

Here’s another good example of Stiller’s honesty, I think, which makes one trust him — an anecdote from his youth in which he gives his brother credit for both courage and the inspired funny line at the right moment. The Stiller kids were at a summer camp, which they both hated for its petty, authoritarian rules. For example, no talking after lights out was strictly enforced, with a counselor patrolling the tent area to make sure no one uttered a peep. Out of the silent darkness, Stiller’s brother, Arnie, yelled fearlessly, “Give me liberty or give me death!”

“Who said that?” demanded the angry camp counselor.

“Patrick Henry,” Arnie shot back.

You see how easy it would’ve been for Jerry Stiller to fudge things a little and take credit for at least the Patrick Henry riposte, in order to show he was already developing his fast comic chops. But no, he hands the whole triumph to his brother.

But Jerry Stiller’s follow-up to that event was typical in its principled stance as well as its energy and practicality. He declared, “I knew I’d never go back to that camp,” and then hunted down another, far better camp to attend the next summer. Called the Boys Brotherhood Republic, it was an adult-free camp run entirely by the boys themselves, who democratically elected boy leaders and shared the camp-running chores. The camp seems like a more pre-planned version of that inspiring anti–Lord of the Flies news story that’s been making the rounds online, about the shipwrecked Australian boys who banded together to help each other survive in the most admirable fashion.

Of course, the Stiller boys could only go to camp because their father had finally scored a steady job as a bus driver after many years of Depression-era unemployment. They spent much of their childhoods mired in poverty in various slums of Brooklyn and the Lower East Side of New York City, listening to their parents fight. Jerry decided on a career as a comedian because he saw two of his comic idols — Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Durante — perform in ways that demonstrated their proletarian sensibilities.

According to Stiller, Cantor’s popularity rested in part on his acknowledgment of the harsh realities of most people’s lives. “How’d you all get here?” Cantor shouted before starting his act. “On the bus!” the largely working-class audience yelled back.

Durante’s act included a bit about how the theater owners hadn’t wanted to book him because he was too low-class for their fancy joint. Pretending to argue this point, Durante took off his suit jacket and passed it around to the audience, growling, “Feel those tails,” and exhorting the audience to appreciate the quality of the fabric.

Seeing his unhappy parents laugh at this, uniting his whole fractious family for a brief time, gave Stiller his lifelong ambition to be a comedian.

Stiller got in-depth training as an actor at Syracuse University and the HB Studio run by Herbert Berghof and Uta Hagen, with its illustrious roster of famous alums including Barbra Streisand, Robert De Niro, Sigourney Weaver, and Stiller’s classmate Steve McQueen. He acted in Joseph Papp’s groundbreaking Shakespeare in the Park productions with pals like George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst, and he made his first forays into comedy working cafés and nightclubs with Alan Arkin.

This impressive background gave Stiller the chops to do it all — serious, detailed character work backing up Walter Matthau in the 1974 film The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, clowning comic relief in John Houseman’s production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, and breakthrough success with Stiller and Meara doing comedy sketches in nightclubs, thirty-six appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, and a series of commercials for Blue Nun wine that ironically made the married duo more famous than anything else.

Jerry Seinfeld paid tribute to Stiller after his death by saying, while working on Seinfeld,

I never gave Jerry Stiller a note. I never adjusted his performance once. Whatever he did, that’s it. We’re putting that out there. I don’t know why he did it like that. I don’t know why he screamed on that line. It doesn’t matter. It’s funny. So funny. I am such a dedicated believer in if it’s funny, don’t touch it. I don’t care why it’s funny. I don’t care what the line was supposed to be. He said it that way, we’re doing it that way.

Seinfeld’s tribute to Stiller, not correcting his performance even when he didn’t understand what Stiller was going for, makes even more sense when you consider that Stiller essentially invented the character. If you can believe Stiller (and I think you can), he came up with the perpetually enraged shouter Frank Costanza when the earlier conception of the character — a pathetically “meek” and “Thurberesque husband” to Estelle Harris’s ball-busting wife — wasn’t working for him. Stiller’s daring character revision was just one in a series of bold moves he made as an actor in his lifetime that put his job on the line if he failed.

Given that, frankly, it would’ve been a tad presumptuous for the younger Jerry S. to be giving the older Jerry S. any director’s notes. By that time, Stiller had earned a note-free life.