Never A Faker
Who would have imagined that George Costanza's father and Doug Heffernan's father-in-law would turn out to be such a wonderful, soft-spoken, interesting person? Certainly not me.
Although I knew that Stiller had performed in hundreds of movies and shows (and I had seen many of them) it was still the Seinfeld/King of Queens persona I expected to encounter when I had the honor of interviewing him.
This is a man with so much theater and acting history he could keep a person interested, amazed and amused for hours, if not days, by telling his stories.
He is married to the very-funny Anne Meara and they have appeared together both in stand-up (as Stiller and Meara) and acting roles many times. They have two children, Ben Stiller (award winning actor and director) and Amy (actress and stand-up comedienne).
Stiller says in most cases an actor is approached by a studio with a role they think he would be good for. He says that usually, unless you have super-actor status like his son Ben Stiller or Christopher Plummer, you really don't have the option of choosing roles yourself. Of course, he adds you always have the option to say no and turn down roles you don't think are appropriate.
Listen to Jerry Stiller talk about choosing roles and some memories of Cleveland.
Jerry has had the acting bug since he was very young. He remembers the Hennessey Theater where he played Hitler, of all people, in a comedy. He made people laugh and it was a sensation he would never forget and often replicate.
In the 30's as he was growing up in New York, radio was the "big thing". "Eddie Cantor was on at 8:00 Sunday nights... He was a product of the Depression." Stiller identified with him because he "came from the lower east side where I was brought up. He was Jewish. He worked his way up from being a singing waiter. He had such joy, such energy."
Cantor used to sing the song "Potatoes Are Cheaper Tomatoes Are Cheaper Now's The Time To Fall In Love", a song that Stiller says allowed people to get away from what was happening and be happy.
As a child he sent for tickets to see Cantor's show at 30 Rock. The tickets came and the entire family went. Cantor warmed up the audience by singing Margie (Margie, I'm always thinking about you...). "All these songs were there to enliven us and make us feel better. He had a great song called "If I were President" You have to remember I was 10 years old and I actually thought if he ran for President he would be elected and we would have a Jewish President and I could go to the White House and I could sleep over."
"I love the theater and I was lucky enough to be part of it."
Listen to Jerry Stiller talk about the Depression and Eddie Cantor.
Although he loved acting and comedy, he also had to make money. So in addition to his acting he sold Good Humor Ice Cream, washed windows in Queens for $1.00 a window, mixed cement and sold orange juice in Times Square. "I never thought I would have to do anything else but act. It didn't matter that I wasn't making money...I was acting. We weren't making any money because nobody was in those days. But it didn't matter, you were working."
He took acting classes with Charles Nelson Reilly, Steve McQueen, Shelly Berman and says "We were all trying to make it."
Jerry Stiller with the cast of Ice Dreams,
on the Hallmark Channel
Jerry is the oldest of three children. His father was an unemployed bus driver. They moved around a lot, as much as ten times in twelve years; once just from one end of the block to the other. That was not the family life he wanted for his family.
"I was brought up with Andy Hardy and The Hardy family with Judge Hardy and Aunt Millie Upstairs. I wanted to be them. I wanted to live in Harpersfield USA."
Listen to Jerry Stiller talk about Andy Hardy, family and his and Anne's kids.
"I thought I would become rich and famous." He married Anne Meara who he says was "The only person who would marry me - she was crazy too." They were married for twelve years before they had children. Jerry never forgot his pledge not to let his kids have the same kind of childhood he did, so he and Anne took the kids with them everywhere.
"We schlepped them from place to place. We took them to Vegas or Los Angeles. We'd be performing with [Gladys Knight] and they'd be in the pool swimming with The Pips."
Las Vegas also had a nursery then, but it has since been torn down. Wherever they performed the kids were either in the audience or the green room. "They really were part of the business."
Stiller says he's "not one of those people who say give me the good old days. Things change and they change for the better too. I have worked with some of the greatest actors. Take a person like Kevin James who I worked with on King of Queens, this guy can do anything that Buster Keaton did".
He says James' physical comedy is second to none, and also describes him as an "Amazing guy who also has acting ability and a charm to him. He writes his own material."
Listen to Jerry Stiller talk about Seinfeld and the King of Queens.
He also has a warm spot in his heart for Jason Alexander - his son George in the Seinfeld series and Michael Richards aka Kramer. "I joined that show in its 5th year. There I was the new guy in the block and Jason and Michael Richards were especially embracing."
He was only scheduled to play Frank Costanza for one performance but was called back 25 times in a recurring role. "When that show ended I got a call from CBS and they needed a father on King of Queens." Again, it was to be a one episode appearance. In this case it turned into nine years.
He has fond memories of his time in Ohio and specifically in Cleveland. He was a part of the famed Kenley Players where he performed in The Prisoner of Second Avenue. He and Anne played in the Sahara Inn in the early days of their night club act. He describes the Sahara as "a motel with a music room."
Stiller also performed at the legendary Alpine Village, a very popular venue owned by Herman Pirchner. "He used to book people like Frankie Yancovich in there and then one day hired me and Anne and Alan Arkin. We followed a girl named Beverly who threw a flaming baton. We were the closing act."
The movie "Those Lips Those Eyes" was filmed in Cleveland at Cain Park "one of the all time great summer theaters". He says Cleveland was going through a very tough time and he remembers it as being a very meaningful time for him. They were shooting the scenes at night, and the crew and actors all brought their families down to Cain Park to eat the food on the set. "There was no money around, but we all ate." "I enjoyed the feeling of being around those people. "
He also thinks there must be something in the water because Ohio has produced such amazing talents like Kay Ballard, Phyllis Diller, Hugh Downs, Jonathan Winters and more. "Ohio is like the Catskills of Midwest. It bred the funniest and most talented people."
"Cleveland always was a tough town. I hated when he took the Browns out of Cleveland… even though I am a New Yorker. I was lower East Side New York, but I have the same roots as Cleveland" and he always identified with Clevelanders.
Listen to Jerry Stiller talk about Cleveland, the Catskills of the Midwest, the Browns and more.
More of his great stories can be found in his book, Married to Laughter: A Love Story Featuring Anne Meara.
Jerry Stiller's father often took him to Vaudeville shows. When a comedian failed to make the audience laugh he would yell out "Faker! Faker!" Stiller goes through life vowing never to be "a faker" and in fact, he would like his tombstone to read "Never A Faker".
I think we can agree he has earned that epitaph, but I for one hope it isn't needed for a very long time.
Be sure to watch Jerry Stiller as ice rink owner 'Skipper' in the Hallmark Channel feature Ice Dreams.
Listen to Jerry Stiller talk about his role in Ice Dreams.
Interview by Debbie Hanson, January 2010
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