Jerry Stiller was known for playing irascible loudmouths and high-strung hotheads.
In truth, the actor and comedian, who died May 11 of natural causes at the age of 92, could not have been more different than the TV personas of his later years: the ultra-neurotic Frank Costanza of “Seinfeld” or the miscreant Arthur Spooner of “The King of Queens.”
Friends and colleagues remember Stiller as an actor who was dedicated to his work and grateful for a long career in show business after growing up in difficult circumstances during the Depression. The father of filmmaker Ben Stiller, actor Amy Stiller and widower of Anne Meara — his longtime comedy partner and wife of 62 years — was respected throughout the industry.
“One of the sweetest and kindest men I’ve ever known, not to mention one of the funniest,” “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David says of Stiller, who had a recurring role as the father of Jason Alexander’s George Costanza. “I was blessed to be able to work with him.”
Stiller’s early fame as one-half of Stiller & Meara at times overshadowed his skills as an actor. The duo was a staple of “The Ed Sullivan Show” and nightclubs in the 1960s, playing off their odd-couple pairing as a short Jewish husband and a tall Catholic wife. Meara died in 2015.
Michael J. Weithorn, co-creator and showrunner of the CBS sitcom “The King of Queens,” which aired from 1998 to 2007, recalls overhearing Stiller rehearse with his assistant over and over to prepare for a telephone conversation scene in which he had two lines: “Hello” and “Who’s this?”
“He was trying to immerse himself in what was happening in that scene so he could play the truth of his condition,” Weithorn says. “It was very funny but also revealing about his work ethic.”
Stiller was mostly known for comedic roles, but he stretched his acting muscles with work onstage, notably his part as a craven screenwriter in the 1984 Broadway production of David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly,” directed by Mike Nichols. His TV guest star turns over the years included a long list of sitcoms and animated series as well as “Law & Order,” “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “L.A. Law,” “Tales From the Darkside” and “The Equalizer.”
“A lot of comics when they are asked to act don’t go too deep,” Weithorn says. “If the laughs are on the page, they know how to rhythmically get the laugh. Jerry didn’t approach it that way at all. He was an actor through and through. He was so devoted to his craft that he had to make sure that what he was saying was rooted in real emotions. That’s an actor.”