Jerry Stiller in the WaPo and NYTimes: “This time I really screamed. Everybody broke up laughing.”

From comedian Jerry Stiller’s obits in the Washington Post and New York Times:

Harrison Smith in the Washington Post:

Jerry Stiller, the Brooklyn-born entertainer who formed a popular comedy act in the 1960s with his wife, Anne Meara, before playing crotchety, kvetching fathers on network sitcoms — most notably the hypertensive Frank Costanza on “Seinfeld” — died May 11 at his home in Manhattan. He was 92.

Mr. Stiller rose to national prominence on a barrage of one-line jokes and sly ethnic humor, with his Jewish background and Meara’s Irish Catholic heritage forming a comic motif. With age, he transformed into a master of righteous indignation and raucous anger, drawing on memories of fights between his parents to create some of the funniest moments of the 1990s’ most celebrated and popular sitcom.

As Costanza, Mr. “Stiller was perpetually struggling to control his temper, blood pressure and contempt for his son, George, a balding schlemiel played by Jason Alexander.” Among the few tools he used to regain his composure was a mantra he learned from a relaxation tape — “serenity now” — which he screamed while raising his hands to the heavens. Serenity never seemed to come. . . .

The part of Frank Costanza was initially filled by actor John Randolph, until show creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David approached Mr. Stiller, seeking to shake things up. Written as a milquetoast foil to actress Estelle Harris, who played Frank Costanza’s wife, the character was reinvented on the fly by Mr. Stiller, who was seeking to avoid the fate of his predecessor.

“I read my line gently, as I had been told, and it was as if a pall fell over the room,” he told USA Today in 1996. “So I did the scene again, and this time I really screamed. Everybody broke up laughing.” Then Jason asked me to hit him. I didn’t want to, but he encouraged me to really let him have it. I did, and it got another huge laugh. And now screaming and hitting are my trademarks.”

Somewhat out of practice as an actor, Mr. Stiller struggled to remember his lines, Alexander once told the Archive of American Television — a difficulty that only worked in his favor. “The lines would come back to him in little stutter steps,” Alexander said. “So they would come out in little stutter steps, and what you were seeing was his growing anxiety and frustration with his own memory, that got translated into the disdain for the world that Frank Costanza had.”
From the New York Times obit by Peter Keepnews:

Mr. Stiller’s accomplishments as an actor were considerable. He appeared on Broadway in Terrence McNally’s frantic farce “The Ritz” in 1975 and David Rabe’s dark drama “Hurlyburly” in 1984. Off Broadway, he was in “The Threepenny Opera”; in Central Park, he played Shakespearean clowns for Joseph Papp; onscreen, he was seen as a police detective in “The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three” (1974) and Divine’s husband in John Waters’s “Hairspray” (1988). But he was best known as a comedian. . . .

Mr. Stiller captured a new generation of fans as Frank Costanza, the short-tempered and not entirely sane father of Jason Alexander’s George, on the NBC series “Seinfeld,” one of the most successful television comedies of all time. . . .

Frank Costanza was a classic sitcom eccentric whose many dubious accomplishments included marketing a brassiere for men and creating Festivus, a winter holiday “for the rest of us,” celebrated with tests of strength and other bizarre rituals.

Frank was known for his explosive, often irrational anger, and in most of his episodes he was sooner or later yelling, usually at his son or his wife, Estelle (played by Estelle Harris), or at both of them.

Just a few months after the final episode of “Seinfeld” (in which Frank had one last moment in the spotlight, spending most of it yelling), broadcast on May 14, 1998, Mr. Stiller was back on television playing another off-kilter father — a marginally more restrained version of Frank Costanza — on another sitcom, “The King of Queens,” which made its debut that fall on CBS. . . .

Mr. Stiller and Ms. Meara’s swan song as a team was a series of web-only video clips produced by their son and posted from November 2010 to March 2011. Each clip lasts about two minutes and consists of the two of them discussing a single topic. One topic is obituaries.

In that clip, Mr. Stiller says he is “shocked” that The New York Times might have already prepared their obituaries and wonders whether the newspaper is “up to date” on his having worked with Veronica Lake in a production of “Peter Pan” (about six decades earlier). And Ms. Meara reveals that years ago Mr. Stiller had persuaded The Times to publish her father’s obituary by falsely claiming that he had written material for their comedy act.

Mr. Stiller’s agitated response: “What you just said is going to get us in trouble with The New York Times! I may never get an obit!”

He needn’t have worried.

Speak Your Mind