Comedian Jerry Stiller has died at age 92. “He was a great dad and grandfather, and the most dedicated husband to Anne for about 62 years. He will be greatly missed. Love you Dad,” a tweet from son Ben Stiller read.
I once saw Jerry Stiller in person. It was 2011 and Ben Stiller, son of Jerry and Ann Meara was on Broadway for a limited run of the John Guare play , The House of Blue Leaves. The play also featured Edie Falco and Jennifer Jason Leigh. It was an unforgettable afternoon, seeing favourites like Falco and Jason Leigh, but then I suddenly noticed that seated next to us was actor John Lithgow (I am not making this up) He was impeccably dressed in a summer suit with a straw fedora. As we got up to leave, I looked back a couple of rows and there was Jerry Stiller and his wife Anne Meara. Being Canadian we acknowledged them with the slightest of nods.
As a teen, I had seen Jerry Stiller many times on TV. He and Meara did an improvisational comedy routine, playing a bickering couple. The banter was witty and hilarious. It was a genre of comedy that we don’t see much of these days, it was based more on language and silly situations than shock. There was a similar routine done by Mike Nichols and Elaine May—this long before Nichols became a brilliant film director. Bob Newhart’s stand-up monologues came from a similar place as did Shelly Berman’s and many others. It was comedy based on everyday human foibles and situations. It was more intellectual than broad. It was also squeaky clean. I never watched Seinfeld or King of Queens much, but when I did see them Jerry was delivering his lines in that same Brooklyn accent that he did in his routines with Anne, his wife of 60 years, who towered over him. Jerry Stiller appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows besides the two he is best known for, His craggy face and accent made him the perfect everyman.
Jerry Stiller had incredible range as an actor. A graduate of the drama school at Syracuse University, he appeared in many Broadway plays, even Shakespeare. He appeared with Kevin Kline and Blythe Danner as Dogberry in William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” in 1988. Musicals were not out of his range, either, as he created the role of Launce in “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and co-starred as Nathan Detroit in a production of “Guys and Dolls”. Still it was comedy that Stiller always returned to. He once told a reporter, “During the Great Depression, when people laughed their worries disappeared. Audiences loved these funny men. I decided to become one.”