Jerry Stiller, the puckish performer whose explosive energy sustained a six-decade career in television, has died at 92.
Short in stature but with a giant screen presence, Stiller had some of the best shouting lungs in the business, giving full-throated voice to Frank Costanza, George’s father on “Seinfeld,” and the obstreperously boyish senior, Arthur Spooner, on “The King of Queens.” The highlights of Stiller’s career run long, beginning with his comedy performances with his wife, Anne Meara, and ending with his appearance in “Zoolander 2,” directed by their son, Ben Stiller. Any list is bound to be incomplete, but here are 10 clips — both audio and video — that show Stiller at his best.
Stiller and Meara
Long before George Costanza posed as a marine biologist, removing a golf ball obstruction from a whale’s blowhole, the man who would play his father was gobbled up by a whale. In this sketch, which marked Stiller and Meara’s first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Stiller plays a New York gentleman with a Yiddish accent who finds himself surrounded by “blubber — wall-to-wall,” during a visit with his daughter in California. The man’s name? Jonah, of course.
Stiller and Meara, an Irish-Catholic, were one of the most visible interfaith couples of their time. And they leaned into it. This sketch, which aired on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, introduced their alter egos, Hershey Horowitz and Mary Elizabeth Doyle, who had been matched by a computer algorithm.
“Hershey Horowitz - Mary Elizabeth Doyle Wedding Plans”
Opposites attract. Hershey proposes to Mary after just a few months with an unconventional ring — it’s unclear if it’s sesame, onion or everything — and the pair practice how they’ll meet the other’s parents. Mary plans to tell Hershey’s mom that she makes “the best meshugena ball soup in the world.” Hershey plans to greet Mary’s father, a cop, with a hearty “top of the Irish to you, sir.” As they imagine their future together, the two tease a bit of the couple’s real life, with Mary suggesting the name Benjamin for their imagined firstborn. Hershey suggests Sean (after his great-great-grandfather Schliemer.)
While the Costanzas are Italian, and not explicitly Jewish, true fans know they do not celebrate Christmas. As Frank, Stiller explains the origins of the holiday, devoted to kvetching about your family and displaying toxic masculinity in the form of “feats of strength.” As a testament to Stiller’s performance here, the holiday has caught on, with many Jewish households now hoisting an aluminum pole out of storage on December 23.
“Calm” is one adjective that can’t be applied to Frank. Yet, he tried for inner peace with the help of a mantra. Spoilers: It doesn’t end well for him, but his line reading thoroughly embedded a sense of disquiet in millions of minds.
“You want a piece of me?”
This is the scene that broke Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It was hard to keep a straight face when Stiller was charging at you full blast. The idea of him coming to blows with Elaine is at once laughable and somehow — with Stiller’s unruffled delivery — vaguely menacing.
For all his bluster, Frank is haunted by his days as a cook in the army, during which he unwittingly gave soldiers food poisoning. He nonetheless decides to help Kramer prepare a meal for a Jewish singles night at the Knights of Columbus Hall (why this Catholic institution is the venue is all Kramer). In the end, Frank, after feeling his culinary skills restored, finds his PTSD triggered. His response reveals why he is so keen on Festivus’ feats of strength.
“The King of Queens”
Arthur the nasal spray addict
In this sequence, Stiller reveals his flair for playing a ridiculous premise to the hilt. Becoming a nasal spray junkie, we see his shame, his acquiescence to the sweet sensation of cleared sinuses and, ultimately, his confrontation with himself. Thankfully, Arthur got help.
Arthur is not Jewish, but one could believe his lineage springs directly from Chelm. Here, he makes something as simple as a pizza order an exercise in frustration. These cold opens with his son-in-law, Doug (Kevin James), single-handedly goosed the energy of a sitcom that was a bit uneven. Such was the power of Stiller’s charisma.
Arthur’s away message
While a dynamic physical comedian, Stiller’s greatest asset was his voice. Here, in a nod to his comedy recording days, we see just how effectively the actor could convey character through audio alone. Take a moment to appreciate the unique emphasis and rhythm Stiller found in his vindictive monologue, the shifts in tone and volume. It’s an approach not many actors would take and one that only he could pull off. Jerry Stiller was an original, and he will be missed.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.