Jerry Stiller Dead at 92

Jerry Stiller and his wife Anne Meara were comic royalty long before he invented Festivus for the rest of us on Seinfeld.

Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara
Photo: John Halpern / Getty

Film, television, and stage actor Jerry Stiller died of natural causes, as according to his son Ben Stiller. He was 92.

“I’m sad to say that my father, Jerry Stiller, passed away from natural causes,” Ben announced on Twitter. “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.”

Stiller is known for his TV roles as Frank Costanza on Seinfeld and Arthur Spooner on The King of Queens, and multiple films including, The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three, John Waters’ Hairspray, his son’s Zoolander, and Richard Lester’s adaptation of Terrence McNally’s play, The Ritz, which Jerry also acted in on Broadway.

But he might be best remembered for being part of the comedy team Stiller & Meara, which he performed with his wife, Anne Meara. The pair met in 1953 at a New York casting call, married in 1954, and stayed married for 62 years. Stiller wrote the autobiography Married to Laughter: A Love Story Featuring Anne Meara about the marriage. The spoken word album version was nominated for a Grammy in 2001. 

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Stiller and Meara first teamed for the Chicago improvisational company, The Compass Players, which went on to become The Second City, before going out on their own. They performed regularly in nightclubs, TV variety, and talk shows. They appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show 36 times. They had their own 1986 TV sitcom, The Stiller and Meara Show. They also did radio and television commercials, like those for Blue Nun wine and Amalgamated Bank. Stiller and Meara raised two children on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Their daughter Amy is also an actress, while son Ben has had his own successful career as an actor and filmmaker. Meara died in 2015.

Jerry Stiller was born in Brooklyn on June 8, 1927. His father was a bus driver who was frequently unemployed. Stiller was drawn to comedy by Eddie Cantor and Mickey Rooney’s Andy Hardy movies. He graduated from Syracuse University with a B.S. in speech and drama.  He studied drama at HB Studio in Greenwich Village.

Stiller would go on to pursue acting beginning in 1953 when he starred in the Phoenix Theater production of William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus with Gene Saks and Jack Klugman. He made his Broadway debut in the original musical comedy, The Golden Apple, in 1954.  On Broadway he originated the role of Carmine Vespucci in The Ritz in 1975. He would go on to appear in Unexpected Guests (1977), Albert Innaurato’s play Passione, which was directed by Frank Langella, in 1980, and David Rabe’s Hurlyburly in 1984.

Off-Broadway, he played in the Rialto Theater’s revival of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera in 1956, as well as revivals of Measure for Measure and The Taming of the Shrew in 1957, and The Power and the Glory, which was based on the novel by Graham Greene. He also played Shakespearean clowns for Joseph Papp’s in Central Park productions. Stiller made his on-screen debut in a 1956 segment of Studio One in Hollywood.

He also appeared on The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Love, American Style, Phyllis, Rhoda, Hart to Hart, Archie Bunker’s Place, Alice, Murder, She Wrote, L.A. Law, and In the Heat of the Night. He played himself on The Larry Sanders Show. He was a series regular on CBS’ 1975 series, Joe and Sons, and as the head chef on NBC’s 1988 series Tattingers.

For the role of Frank Costanza, the father of Jason Alexander’s George on the NBC series Seinfeld, Larry David wanted an actor who would “play it down.” He was initially instructed to play the role as a meek husband to overbearing wife Estelle (Estelle Harris). Stiller tried during rehearsals but changed his approach during the final dress rehearsal in front of a live audience. As an army cook during the Korean War, Stiller’s Frank Costanza gave his entire unit food poisoning. He also co-created the “bro,” a brassiere for men, with Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards). He kept his temper in check with the mantra “Serenity now,” shouted at the top of angry lungs. He also got tired of Christmas cheer and invented the holiday Festivus for the rest of us. He was nominated for an Emmy in 1997.

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Stiller made his film debut as Jim in Lovers and Other Strangers in 1970. He appeared with Meara in the 1977 Watergate satire, Nasty Habits. He appeared in Airport 1975, Those Lips, Those Eyes, Nadine, That’s Adequate (1989), Paul Mazursky’s The PickleA Fish in the Bathtub, The Suburbans, Heavyweights, Hot Pursuit, The Heartbreak Kid, Secret of the Andes, Chump Change and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. His last film appearance was in Zoolander 2 (2016).

As a voice actor, Stiller played Pretty Boy in ABC’s animated series Teacher’s Pet, as well as parts in The Lion King 1½, Nickelodeon’s Wonder Pets!, Disney Channel’s Fish Hooks, Planes: Fire & Rescue, and voiced Murray Weiner in the 2014 NBC special, How Murray Saved Christmas.

Stiller opened and closed concerts for Rush on their 30th Anniversary Tour in 2004.

Stiller and Meara were awarded a shared star on the Hollywood Walk in Fame in 2007.