Even with a career that has made him one of Hollywood’s most popular and respected multi-hyphenates, Ben Stiller hardly relishes looking back.
Of course, that’s precisely what accepting the American Cinematheque’s award at the Beverly Hilton entails. “It’s strange, I’m sort of dreading it to tell you the truth,” Stiller says with measured joviality. “Obviously it’s a really nice thing but the idea of having to, you know, watch stuff I’ve done over the years I don’t really do.”
That said, Stiller cheerfully manages to stroll through a career that began with a showbiz-inflected childhood as the only son of comedy team Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara.
“It was definitely a colorful childhood with a lot of fun experiences that were different than a lot of what other kids were having,” Stiller says. “My parents were working so much they’d take me and my sister, Amy, on the road. We’d do everything from movies to summer stock in Michigan or Cape Cod to hanging out in Las Vegas or Harrah’s nightclub in Reno.”
Born in 1965, Stiller believes he escaped the curse so many children of celebrities face because, “First of all, it was a different era, growing up in the 1970s. Now everyone’s lives are so scrutinized, there are people invading your life all the time with the Internet. The 1970s in New York was so much more low-fi.
“Also, my folks never moved to California, they were New Yorkers, doing their things. It wasn’t living in Beverly Hills and feeling disconnected with a glitzy fake life. They were rooted in reality.”
Comedy initially was not Stiller’s goal. “For me I always loved movies since I was a kid; it was more about movies than being funny,” he says. “I’d go to the Loews 84th Street on Broadway and see ‘The Planet of the Apes’ marathon, I’d see Scorsese or Coppola movies. It was a great era and from 10 years on I knew I wanted to do that, make movies. I had an innate desire to do that.”
Once his father gave him a Super 8 camera, “I would go out with my friends” and make little movies, he recalls. “When as a teenager I started to act a little bit I didn’t know quite how to do it. I was trying to do all of it but not doing any of it very well. The turning point with comedy came watching certain shows like ‘Second City TV,’ Mel Brooks movies, Steve Martin in ‘The Jerk’ and then when I was a little older ‘Caddyshack.’
“When I was 18 or 19 I said, ‘I want to do something like that.’ Growing up with parents as comedians you want to find your own thing and I did also like serious movies. I had a split personality about the whole thing for a while.”
Stiller quit UCLA and began to audition. “When I didn’t get parts I started making shorts. What people are doing now, they generate their own thing and I think that’s the way to do it: Move forward.”
His sketch comedy series “The Ben Stiller Show” debuted on MTV in 1990, ran for 13 episodes before moving to Fox in 1992 for 12 episodes, and was canceled. It was actually a lucky break that led to a brilliant film career.
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