The world is a little less funny today as veteran comedian Jerry Stiller has passed away at 92 years old. Best known for playing Frank Costanza, father of Jason Alexander’s character George Costanza on the classic comedy series Seinfeld, the comedian is forever associated with the creation of Festivus, a holiday created in response to the crass commercialization of Christmas. But Stiller had a long career before joining Seinfeld, not to mention fathering one of today’s biggest comedy stars.
Ben Stiller broke the news of Jerry Stiller dead in a short announcement on Twitter overnight:
The news comes after Jerry Stiller’s wife and longtime comedy partner Anne Meara passed away back in 2015. After growing up in Brooklyn, getting a spark for acting in high school, serving in the Army during World War II, and studying theater at Syracuse University, he met Anna when they were struggling actors in 1953. The two quickly fell in love and got married that same year. Jerry and Anne started to find fame in 1959 by working with the famous Compass Players improv comedy troupe that eventually would come to be called Second City, but their careers truly took off when they started performing together in New York nightclubs, which led to dozens of appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show.
The most famous bit from Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara involved playing characters that were loosely based on themselves. Inspired by the fact that both came from different religious backgrounds (Anne was an Irish-American Roman Catholic while Jerry was Eastern European and Jewish), the two created a married couple named Hershey Horowitz and Mary Elizabeth Doyle, who always had problems to work through on stage.
Stiller and Meara were a team for over a decade, and they found even more success by appearing in commercials. But eventually their days as a duo came to an end, each going their own separate ways in comedy. However, the two would occasionally reunite in projects written/directed/produced by Ben Stiller and elsewhere, and they were still married happily right up until Meara’s passing five years ago.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Jerry Stiller would appear in shows such as Joe and Sons, Nasty Habits, Hart to Hart, Simon & Simon, The Love Boat, The Equalizer, Tales from the Darkside, and even Reading Rainbow. Stiller also appeared in films throughout those decades like The Taking of Pellham One Two Three, Airport 1975, Hot Pursuit and Hairspray.
The 1990s saw Stiller working a little less with appearances on L.A. Law, In the Heat of the Night, and Homicide: Life on the Street, not to mention a big screen reunion with his wife Anne in Heavyweights, in which they played the owners of a camp taken over by Ben Stiller as an eccentric health nut. But it was 1993 that really gave him a career resurgence when he started appearing on Seinfeld.
What’s incredible about Jerry Stiller’s fame for starring in Seinfeld is that he only appears in 26 of the total 180 episodes of the series, and he didn’t even debut on the show until the fifth season. In fact, Frank Costanza was played by another actor entirely when the character appears in the show’s fourth season. Funnily enough, those scenes were reshot with Jerry Stiller for the reruns that would air in syndication. Stiller’s rants on Seinfeld are justifiably famous, but he will forever be known as the man who brought a Festivus for the rest of us when holidays get people down in the dumps.
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