Ben Stiller remembers father Jerry Stiller, says he was nothing like the 'volcano' that was his 'Seinfeld' character

Kevin Polowy
·5 min read

Fans of the ‘90s sitcom staple Seinfeld — and the comedy world at large — have been mourning the loss of beloved actor Jerry Stiller, who died last week at the age of 92.

The pain of that loss obviously cut much deeper for Ben Stiller, the late performer's famous son and star of films like There's Something About Mary, Zoolander and Tropic Thunder.

In a new interview with The New Yorker's Isaac Chotiner, the 54-year-old actor, writer and director shares candid memories of his late father and talks about growing up with not one but two comedians as parents: Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara (who passed away in 2015) were a longtime comedy duo who appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show more than 30 times and regularly made other television, stage and radio appearances together.

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 11:  Actors Ben Stiller and Jerry Stiller arrive at the HELP HAITI - Urban Zen HHRH & The Stiller Foundation Honoring Sean Penn at the Urban Zen Center At Stephan Weiss Studio on February 11, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Charles Eshelman/FilmMagic)
Ben Stiller shares candid memories of his late father, Jerry Stiller. (Photo: Charles Eshelman/FilmMagic)

The elder Stiller ultimately became most well-known for his fiery-tempered portrayal of Frank Costanza, father of Jason Alexander's George in Seinfeld — which first hit the air in 1989, the same year Ben began a short-lived tenure on Saturday Night Live that nonetheless eventually helped propel him to becoming one of the most popular comedic actors working. (Jerry, however, didn't appear on Seinfeld until 1993 — the same year Ben went into production on his directorial debut, 1994's Reality Bites.)

Jerry Stiller in 'Seinfeld' (NBC)
Jerry Stiller in Seinfeld. (Photo: NBC)

To hear Ben put it, Jerry was nothing like the Festivus-celebrating firebrand that was Frank Costanza.

"We had a small service for him, and I was talking to the rabbi about him," Ben said. "And the rabbi was talking about his character on Seinfeld. And I said, 'He never once raised his voice to me, ever, as a kid. Ever.' So I watch that and I laugh, because I’m, like, 'Who is that person?' Because that really was not him, but I think he was unleashing something that I think was suppressed in his real life.

"I think he held a lot of stuff down, and it would come out in that character,” he added. “Sometimes I think about it — it’s really like this sort of volcano coming out of stuff that was inside of him."

Jerry's gregariousness comes through in one particular anecdote Ben shared.

"If [he] met somebody on the street and they said they were a fan and they were interested in acting, he’d talk to them for 20 minutes about it. For real. He was that guy."

Before landing the patriarch role in Seinfeld, Jerry had starred in small or supporting roles in films like The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three (1974), Airport 1975 (1974) and Hairspray (1988). But the comedy "about nothing" marked a resurgence in his career.

"I think Seinfeld really changed his life, because he was at a point in his career where the phone wasn’t really ringing. And he and my mom had really stopped working together. So, for someone who’s thrived on work and thrived on being funny and having an interaction with an audience, it really changed everything for him. I read in one of the obituaries that he had only done about 25 shows in the whole series. And, given the fact that he made such an impact, I hadn’t even realized that.

"He loved working with those actors, and he would prepare like he was doing Shakespeare. He would break it down, a sitcom script, and figure out, 'Why am I saying this? What’s the motivation for this character? What’s his history?' So it came out of him putting everything into it, and not trying to be funny. And yet, of course, it came out so funny because he was just putting everything into it."

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 24:  Actors Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller attends the 62nd Annual Outer Critics Circle Awards at Sardi's on May 24, 2012 in New York City.  (Photo by Ben Hider/Getty Images)
Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller attend the 62nd Annual Outer Critics Circle Awards at Sardi's on May 24, 2012 in New York City. (Photo: Ben Hider/Getty Images)

After Seinfeld wrapped in 1998, Jerry continued to be a regular presence on primetime TV opposite Kevin James and Leah Remini on CBS's The King of Queens. Though as Chotiner notes in The New Yorker, his primary legacy for most people will always been his volcanic traveling salesman who wore his sneakers in the swimming pool.

"I think the only thing that might have bothered him a little bit was that he wanted people to remember his work with Anne, because he loved my mom so much," Ben replied when asked how Jerry felt about that. "I think that would be the only aspect of it. He would be, like, 'But, Anne — Anne is amazing.'"

Ben said he and his sister Amy Stiller, who is also a comedian, were both able to spend time with their father before he passed.

"Just due to the fact that he didn’t have a coronavirus-related illness, and he had been ailing for a while, we were able to be with him, which I’m very, very grateful for," he said. "He was just slowing down a lot, and he was dealing with a lot of issues. And so the last week or two were tougher for him. But he went peacefully, and he had a sense of humor, for sure, until the end. I hesitate to call it a sense of humor. He was just funny, and so he was always himself. He was almost 93, and I think his body was kind of at that point where it was time."

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