Years after Seinfeld went off the air, fans would come up to Jerry Stiller on the street and repeat some of his character Frank Costanza’s most famous lines. “It’s nice I’m still remembered,” he said in 2012. “People say, ‘You want a piece of me?'”
The truth is, everybody wanted a piece of Jerry, who died of natural causes at 92 on May 10. He could make the most cantankerous characters seem cuddly. “It’s just who he was — he was a very likable fellow,” Michael Weithorn, cocreator of Jerry’s long-running hit The King of Queens, tells Closer. “You were always rooting for him.”
He started out life as an underdog, growing up as the son of a bus driver and his wife in Brooklyn during the Depression. “I figured if I could make my mother and father laugh, they’d stop fighting,” he recalled. “When people laughed, their worries disappeared. And audiences loved funny men. I decided to become one.”
That he did, paired as a stand-up act with Anne Meara, whom he met when they were both struggling actors in an agent’s office in 1953 and married a year later. “They really were from two different planets,” their daughter, Amy Stiller, says of Jerry and Anne, who was two inches taller than her husband and converted from Catholicism to Judaism when they wed. “But they needed and adored each other.”
As Stiller and Meara, they found success on both variety (The Ed Sullivan Show) and game shows (Tattletales), but their career slowed down in the ’80s. Still, they remained committed to their family, which also included son Ben [Stiller]. “We managed to hand in there,” said Jerry. “Today when people get married, there’s a tendency to run away when things get tough. There’s a log of strength in hanging together.”
Jerry enjoyed a comeback in the ’90s thanks to his gigs on Seinfeld and The King of Queens. “Any role played by Jerry was unlike how it would’ve been played by anybody else,” raves Weithorn. “He was really one of a kind and someone who made everyone he worked with happy.”
Among them was Leah Remini, who played his daughter on The King of Queens. “I will be forever grateful for the memories, the fatherly talks offscreen and for the many years of laughter, the kindness he showed to me and my family,” she says.
Sadly, Anne passed away at 85 in 2015, but Jerry carried on, making his last appearance in Zoolander 2 opposite Ben, who called his dad “the most naturally funny man in the world.” To Jerry, that was the highest compliment. “It makes you feel good when people say, ‘You made us laugh,’” Jerry confessed. “It’s as good a thing as you can get.”