When Jerry Stiller told his father he wanted to become an actor, his father offered an alternate plan. He said, "Why don't you be a stagehand — that's like being on the stage — at least you'll be working every night," Stiller told Fresh Air in 1993.
Stiller did not heed his father's advice and went on to have a long career in show business. He performed comedy on stage and screen, and, in later years, made a name for himself playing George Costanza's hotheaded father on Seinfeld. Stiller died of natural causes, his son Ben Stiller tweeted Monday.
Stiller was born in Brooklyn in 1927. After serving in World War II, he teamed up with his wife, Anne Meara, to form the Stiller and Meara comedy duo — a practical move motivated by love. "We wanted to keep the marriage together," he joked — she was tall and Catholic, he was short and Jewish — and until they partnered up, "we never got jobs together," Stiller told the Archive of American Television.
Stiller and Meara enjoyed success as a duo for many years but eventually decided to pursue careers on their own. Looking back in 1993, Stiller told Fresh Air he and Meara were young parents juggling a show business schedule — and trying "to figure out a way to do everything."
"Here were a husband and wife working together and suddenly you're being asked to play Las Vegas," he recalled. "What do you do, pick up the two children and the nanny and go to Vegas and get ready to do the nightclub act?"
After stints on Broadway and on several TV shows in the 1970s, Stiller's most notable role came in the early '90s, when he joined the cast of Seinfeld.
Stiller said producer Larry David was looking for an actor who would "play it down" — and he did at first — but felt the approach wasn't working. So, in a final dress rehearsal in front of a live audience, Stiller played Costanza's temperament up — way up.
In a now-famous episode, the frequently furious Costanza is encouraged to recite the mantra "serenity now" every time he gets riled up. Stiller went on to earn an Emmy nomination for his work on Seinfeld. Years later, he played another angry dad on the show King of Queens.
Stiller was also a father in real life, but not one fueled by anger. His son, actor Ben Stiller, told NPR that his dad was always supportive — and hilarious.
"He just can't help but be funny because he's so committed to being who he is," Stiller said.
The father and son appeared together in Ben's Zoolander movies.
When Meara died in 2015, she and Stiller had been married for more than 60 years.
Ben Stiller said his mother's humor tended to be dark, but his father's was always intended to bring joy, and perhaps a bit of "serenity now," to others.