December 13, 2001
When Stiller Met Singer
The "Seinfeld" actor's part as a narrator in a Chanukah special reminds him of his own family stories.
Actor Jerry Stiller was recently visited by the ghost of Chanukah past.
While recording the Chanukah special of the public-radio series "One People, Many Stories" for the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles, (airing Dec. 15 at 8 p.m. on 89.3 FM) he recalled a wintry day when he was 8, and living in a cold-water flat on the Lower East Side. His parents argued constantly, but Stiller escaped the tension when his Uncle Charlie led him out of the tenement to a holiday celebration in Brooklyn. "I remember we entered this Orthodox shul, and all the beautiful candles on the menorah were lit up, and there was such a feeling of happiness," says Stiller, best-known as one-half of the comedy team Stiller and Meara with his wife, Anne, and for playing cranky dads on "Seinfeld" and "The King of Queens." "It was a modest old synagogue, nothing fancy, just people, and they were joyously singing. And that was my first memory of Chanukah."
Stiller says he was drawn to the family-oriented radio series, "One People, Many Stories" -- in which celebrities read Jewish tales by authors such as Sheldon Oberman and Isaac Bashevis Singer -- because the literature connect him to his own family stories. "My mother came from a Polish town called Frampol, a place that Singer often describes in his work, so by reading it I've felt apprised of my own background," says the 74-year-old actor, who is dad to superstar Ben Stiller. "One night about 25 years ago, Anne and I were honoring Singer at a Jewish Repertory Theater event, and he was talking very lovingly of Frampol. So I went up to him and I said, 'Mr. Singer, I have to tell you my mother came from Frampol, and so did all my uncles and cousins; eventually, they all moved into a tenement at 61 Columbia Street.' Whereupon he turned to me and remarked, without skipping a beat, 'Well, Frampol was a very small town.'"
Singer turned out to be a Landsman in the new country as well: Stiller frequently ran into him over breakfast at the American Restaurant near his apartment on the Upper West Side. "I lived on 84th Street and he lived on 86th Street," recalls Stiller, who plays a Jewish shlock director in the new film, "The Independent," now in theaters. "I'd be eating my coffee and eggs, and invariably Singer and his wife would sit down at the table right across from me and order oatmeal.... The day after he won the Nobel Prize in 1978, I was trying to get a Sunday Times on the corner of 86th Street, and who is in front of me but Singer. And I said to him, 'Singer, you win the Nobel Prize, and you have to stand in line to get the paper?'"
The jovial, gravelly voiced Stiller -- who hosts the 11-part "One People" series as the fictional Shalom the Story Peddler -- is himself a consummate storyteller. During a Journal interview, he described meeting his wife-to-be at a 1953 casting cattle call where an agent got fresh and made her cry. After Stiller comforted Meara, the two unemployed actors were walking down Broadway when she asked if he was a comedian. When he nodded, she complained, "I hate comedians. They do such awful things."
Within a year, Meara, too, had become a comedian, as Stiller and Meara began playing Greenwich Village coffee houses, riffing on his being short and Jewish and her being tall and Irish-Catholic. By 1961, she had converted to Judaism, and the couple had become regulars on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
Stiller went on to star in films such as "Hairspray" before landing the "Seinfeld" role that would make him something of a pop culture icon in the 1990s. He played Frank Costanza, the hotheaded father of Seinfeld's prickly pal, George -- a supposedly Italian American character everyone knew was Jewish. (George was the alter-ego of Jewish "Seinfeld" co-creator, Larry David.) "I used to joke that the Costanzas were a Jewish family in the witness protection program," says Stiller, adding that in his own mind, the Costanzas were members of the tribe. The actor says he based his performance on memories of his own father, a bus driver who was frustrated by poverty and a sour marriage.
Stiller relates in an even more personal way to Morty Fineman, the Z-grade filmmaker he plays in Stephen Kessler's hilarious mock-documentary, "The Independent. "I can identify with this guy and his overwhelming frustration with never having made it," says Stiller, who like Fineman has been around forever, but doesn't always get the respect he deserves. "For example, a man came up to me a couple of week ago and said, 'Mr. Stiller, I enjoy most of your work.' At that moment, everything I've ever done I'm not proud of flashed in front of my eyes."
"The Independent" also features a cameo by Ben Stiller, which remained a secret until the senior Stiller attended a screening and noticed a familiar-looking person portraying a fish-like policeman in the faux Fineman movie, "Whale of a Cop." "He was shpritzing water out of his mouth, and I turned to Stephen and said, 'Is that my son?" recalls Stiller, who played the crass agent Maury Ballstein in his son's recent film, "Zoolander." Papa Stiller started to laugh -- and then to cry. "Ben did it for his dad," he says.
People who contribute $54 to the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles (a department of The Bureau of Jewish Education, an agency of The Jewish Federation), will receive the special a six-CD set of "One People, Many Stories," produced by Johanna Cooper and library director Abigail Yasgur. For information, call (866) 800-BOOK or (323) 761-8644.