TV’s Most Lovable Loudmouth: Jerry Stiller (1927-2020)

In the 1993 episode of Seinfeld titled “The Cigar Store Indian,” Frank Costanza becomes incensed when Elaine Benes loses his TV Guide. Desperate to have something to read on the subway and unaware of her friend’s father’s obsession with the small screen’s most famous magazine, Elaine swipes his week-old copy of TV Guide only to leave it on the seat after an awkward exchange with a (very) unwanted suitor. In fairness, Elaine should have known better given her awareness of Frank’s high-strung nature — not to mention his son George’s trademark obsessiveness — that it could lead to unexpected consequences. In any case, Frank’s rants throughout the episode are a hallmark of one of the better expanded-universe supporting characters in television history — or at least one of its best in a long line of angry old men. “The nerve of that woman. Walking into my house and stealing my collectibles.”

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It’s fitting that one of the defining moments of the character of Frank Constanza on Seinfeld involved the TV Guide. Actor Jerry Stiller’s career on television practically spans the time the medium has been a ubiquitous part of the American living room, starting in 1956, with the first of two appearances (this one as Sgt. Joe Capriotti) in the anthology Studio One In Hollywood. However, in truth, his last appearance — not counting voice work — was as a judge on The Good Wife in 2011 — nine years before he died last night in his sleep. For your enjoyment (we hope), here are a ton of clips from (and perhaps too many words about) the three most famous periods of his vast history on television.

Stiller & Meara

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Married in 1954,  Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara — both up-and-coming actors — formed their comedy team in the early 1960s after Stiller, in a pinch, filled in for legendary stand-up Shelley Berman (aka Larry David’s dad on Curb Your Enthusiasm) at NYC’s Cherry Lane Theatre in an improv show featuring another male-female improv duo Mike Nichols & Elaine May. He had never heard of improv before and was delighted by its potential, calling up his wife with his idea for an act.

Stiller has intimated that their comedy team was in a sense an attempt to keep their marriage alive as the disparate nature of the pair’s acting style kept them apart as the two did separate gigs. Ironically, he also averred that their (temporary) dissolution of the act in the 1970s served the same purpose as he feared dependence on each other for fame would also stress their relationship. In any case, their unlikely love affair lasted over 60 years, as it would only be Meara’s death in 2005 which would cause them to part. As he put it, they were able to “hang in there” and “there is a lot of strength in hanging together.”

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The two looked every inch the awkward pair as the gorgeous Meara towered over the diminutive and nebbishy Stiller (although she was actually officially just an inch taller), and, fair or not, the act feasted off the apparent mismatch. The two would talk to, over, and through each other as couples in every stage of relationships. A track of fake commercials off the duo’s 1963 comedy debut foretold what is probably their most famous contribution to the cultural zeitgeist as Stiller & Meara recorded a ton of talk-heavy commercials — most famously for Blue Nun wine.

They would revive the act a few times — notably for a 1986 pilot The Stiller & Meara Show that was never picked up and more recently and more successfully for a 10-part web series in 2010. Now here’s a ton of clips from their life…

One of their 12 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show:

On The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, back when — in fact, so back when they called it “computer dating”:

And here’s a Jack-In-The-Box ad from 1976 that shows their knack for subtlety, as well as Stiller’s signature mustache (whew, was creepy without it):

They PSA’d for seat belts before their use was second nature:

Looking back to their first Sullivan sketch — if their love wasn’t true, they are exceptional actors:

Frank Costanza

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Indignant, easily irritable, ne’er-do-well (although he did tend to punch waaaay above his weight in love) George Costanza — despite his flaws, and his remarkably few redeeming features (did he have any?) — is one of television’s most indelible characters, and his father Frank is the ultimate example of “like son, like father.” Paired with Estelle Harris’ Estelle, it was easy to see how Frank Costanza could not produce anything but the most famous misanthrope the world has ever seen.

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Interestingly, Frank Costanza was originally meant to be played soft, a quiet soul cowed by Estelle’s, well Estelle-ness — think, maybe, Richard and Hyacinth on the UK cult classic Keeping Up AppearancesHowever, after that failed with the esteemed John Randolph, newly cast Stiller took the character in a different direction and would eventually, in 1997, earn an Emmy nomination for his efforts.  So, let’s look at some classic moments from the pride of Queens, New York…

From the aforementioned TV Guide episode (“am I just supposed to turn it on and wander aimlessly around the dial?”):

Frank coins the Manzier arguing the Bro is “too ethnic”:

Showing off his tremendous hate-chemistry with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who he would famously get to ruin takes by breaking into laughter:

And, finally, here’s Frank’s creating perhaps the first TV holiday to become part of real world culture (it would be followed by 30 Rock‘s Leap Day and Parks & Recreation‘s Galentine’s Day) — Festivus, for the rest of us:

Arthur Spooner

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It’s tempting to lazily shorthand Jerry Stiller’s other famous TV dad as Frank Costanza 2. Arthur Spooner is certainly another angry Queens man with a tendency to drench the small stuff in sweat and die on the most bizarre hills when he feels wronged. However, there’s a reason Carrie Heffernan is no George Costanza — perhaps it’s partially because where Frank was ’til death, Arthur has had three wives, and takes and divorces a fourth (Meara, of course) in the final season. Lesson: don’t stay together for the kids.

Arthur is also more subdued, yet somehow even more crazy than Frank Costanza. His motor is not stuck on one mode (yelly-angry), and is just as liable to cut you down (or confuse you) with a quietly sarcastic jibe as a chaotic rant. Arthur was further one to put on airs, especially linguistically — perhaps a precursor to Moira Rose. Let’s look at some of Arthur’s best moments.

Unlike Montgomery Burns, Arthur has definitely picked a side in the ketchup/catsup debate:

Arthur takes a bizarre stand for civil rights(?):

Arthur supports a local (billion dollar) business:

While his characters are perhaps the world’s most recognized loudmouths from Queens who are not currently in the process of ruining America, Stiller never actually lived in Queens, having been born in Brooklyn and grown up on the Lower East Side.

Right or wrong, we have a tendency to become sad over the deaths of iconic figures, even though we never net them. With Stiller, it’s extra hard to justify, as the man lived to 92, had a chance to play multiple roles which will live long after him, and spent over 60 years married to a woman he loved and with whom he had such a rapport that it made millions laugh along with them. He can even take pride in raising a certain un-estranged son who managed to have some modicum of success as one of the greatest comic actors and directors of our time.

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That being said, this one still stung. He’s one of those actors whose face just brought joy when he came onscreen — doubled with a feeling that “damn, this is gonna be good.” Because he always was. Plus, as famous as he was for playing blowhards, he never came across in interviews as anything but a genuinely kind soul. The only way I can think of to end this is to scream from the top of my lungs: SERENITY NOW! After all, the man on the tape wasn’t specific.

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