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Jerry Stiller, ‘Seinfeld’s Frank Costanza, Dies at 92

Jerry Stiller
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The comedy world has lost a legend. Jerry Stiller, best known as George Costanza’s cantankerous father Frank on Seinfeld, has passed away. Stiller was 92 years old. According to his son, Ben Stiller, who announced the news on Twitter, Stiller died of “natural causes.” “He was a great dad and grandfather,” Stiller wrote, “and the most dedicated husband to Anne for about 62 years.”

The “Anne” Stiller’s talking about is Anne Mera, who was not only Jerry Stiller’s wife (and Ben Stiller’s mother) but his comedy partner. Known collectively as Stiller & Meara, the duo was a fixture on TV variety and talk shows throughout the 1960s and ’70s. They appeared frequently on shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show:

Even after their onstage career’s peak, Stiller and Meara remained a couple; married in 1954, they stayed together until Meara’s death in 2015. Here’s how The New York Times describes how Stiller and Meara first met:

Mr. Stiller and Ms. Meara met in 1953, when they were both struggling actors, and married shortly afterward. They worked together in 1959 with the Compass Players, an improvisational theater group that later evolved into the Second City. They began performing as a duo in New York nightclubs in 1961 and soon made the first of about three dozen appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Jerry Stiller, born Gerald Isaac Stiller in Brooklyn in 1927, had some memorable supporting appearances in films, including Walter Matthau’s co-worker Rico in The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, and as the loudmouthed agent Maury Ballstein in Ben Stiller’s Zoolander. And after Seinfeld went off the air in 1998 he became a regular on Kevin James’ The King of Queens, appearing on 195 of the sitcom’s 207 episodes as Arthur, father to Carrie, played by Leah Reimini.

But it was Seinfeld that revitalized Stiller’s career in the 1990s. Ironically, Jerry Stiller was not the first actor cast as George’s dad, Frank. As Jerry Stiller recounts in this interview, he was working in a Broadway play when the series first came to him looking for someone to play Frank.

With Stiller unavailable, John Randolph played Frank in the character’s initial appearance on the show, Season 4’s “The Handicap Spot.” Stiller was available to play Frank in his second appearance, “The Puffy Shirt,” and then returned more than 25 times after that. As Stiller notes in the interview above, it was his idea to add Frank’s explosive temper; the character was initially written as much more milquetoast, with his wife Estelle (Harris), the boss of the house.

Stiller’s interpretation became so beloved that the creators of Seinfeld did something fairly unusual when they sold the series to syndication: They reshot John Randolph’s scenes from “The Handicap Spot” with Jerry Stiller, so that audiences would get the Frank they knew when the show aired in reruns.

As Frank, Jerry Stiller found an ideal vehicle for his talents — and a perfect foil in Estelle Harris as George’s mother. (They became so well known as Frank and Estelle, they even did commercials together in the ’90s.)

If asked to pick my favorite Frank Costanza episode, I would probably choose “The Fusilli Jerry,” where Frank becomes consumed with jealousy after he learns Kramer supposedly made a pass at Estelle using his old move, “stopping short,” with disastrous consequences:

Other Seinfeld characters were played by multiple actors — like Jerry’s dad Morty, for example, but the original actors’ scenes were left in for syndication. As the side-by-side video above shows, Stiller’s talents were irreplaceable — even in retrospect. Once you had seen his Frank, it was impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Jerry Stiller left a huge mark on the comedy work. He will be missed.

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