' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Jerry Stiller

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

In Memoriam: Jerry Stiller

Jerry Stiller, after serving in WWII and studying speech and drama at Syracuse University on the GI Bill, commenced his long, successful run in the entertainment business as one half of a comedy duo with his wife, Anne Meara, conveniently called Stiller and Meara. I can’t claim much knowledge of Stiller and Meara, aside from the 1999 indie film “A Fish in the Bathtub”, which I rented from Blockbuster and remember enjoying. But Stiller’s start nevertheless intrigues me because it created a perfect cosmic bookending to his career, beginning as one-half of a marital comedy duo and ending as essentially one-half of a marital comedy duo too.

That brings us to the NBC sitcom “Seinfeld” where, officially beginning in Season 5 of 1993, Stiller first appeared as Frank Costanza, father to George (Jason Alexander), husband to Estelle (Estelle Harris). (Technically the character of Frank had appeared in Season 4 for one episode, but was played by John Randolph, replaced by Stiller, the latter later re-filming that episode’s scenes for syndication.) As has been chronicled and proving how much of an individual stamp Stiller crucially put on the character, Frank Costanza was originally conceived as a docile character dominated by Estelle. But Stiller, after trying to follow the way it was written for several days of rehearsal, could take it no more. And when Estelle Costanza yelled again, Stiller improvised and had Frank Costanza yell back. That was all she wrote. Frank & Estelle became the noisiest house in Queens where, during those memorable mid-season episodes where George was forced to move back home, he was frequently positioned in frames between his father and mother, often looking skyward in futility, virtually swallowed up by the cacophony of their arguments.

Frank and Estelle’s relationship was not so much a give and take as just giving it to one another over and over, comedy routines comprised of berating one another, the tiniest detail igniting a shouting match, Stiller and Harris egging one another on with increasingly vociferous line readings. There was a reason, after all, that Frank and Estelle briefly separated. My favorite Frank & Estelle scene, alas, is nowhere to be found on YouTube, culled from “The Andrea Doria”, in which George summons his folks to the coffee shop, wanting to discuss his childhood. Before they can get to that, though, Estelle, feeling a draft, asks if they can change tables, unleashing a typical back and forth

ESTELLE: “Frank, I’m cold!”
FRANK: “Order a hot dish.”
ESTELLE: “Why can’t we sit over there?”
FRANK: “That’s not a booth!”
ESTELLE: “Who says we have to sit in a booth?!”
FRANK: “I didn’t take the subway all the way to New York to sit at a table like that!”

When they finally get around to George’s childhood, the son, realizing his entire adolescence has been laid before him, begs off. The scene’s capper is given to Stiller, quizzically looking up, as if the previous sixty seconds have been forgotten, and asking “Where’s that breeze coming from?”, underlining the inherent pointlessness of every argument they ever had.

That line demonstrated Stiller’s equally deft command of the deadpan though, rest assured, Frank Costanza’s bluster was his most prominent trait. Seinfeld played coy with George’s heritage, whether he was Jewish or just half-Jewish, meaning it played coy with Frank’s heritage. But then, Festivus, Frank’s self-invented holiday rebuking the commercialization of Christmas, evinced a belief system deliberately apart from standard organized religion. Festivus, of course, included the traditional airing of grievances and that, I suppose, was Frank’s most fervent belief system – airing his grievances. Even his famous relaxation mantra of the last season – “Serenity now” – became, in Stiller’s hands, not a peaceful intonation but weary exasperation aimed squarely at Estelle.

I once read where Christopher Walken said the first thing he did with any screenplay was remove all the punctuation, allowing him to outfit each line with his unique cadence. I imagine Stiller doing the same thing with periods. “Would you believe when I was eighteen,” Frank asks George in “The Puffy Shirt”, “I had a silver dollar collection?” And though the line is a question, Stiller brilliantly adds an exclamation of his own accord, dialing up the verbal intensity so that as the sentence ends, the query improbably morphs into an emphatic statement. He did that over and over, episode after episode. When he’d clap his hands together and grimace he was, as longtime “Seinfeld” director Andy Ackerman has noted, trying to remember his lines, but it also embodied Stiller’s “halting way of speaking”, as one character on the show literally put it, and made Stiller sort of resemble a human geyser, rumbling, about to discharge another aggrieved bellow.

If Jerry’s dad, Morty (Barney Martin), began the show more in the realm of reality, a retiree who often came across exhausted by familial obligations, ready to just sit on the couch and relax, he gradually grew more eccentric and kooky, echoing the trajectory of the show itself, and not always for the better. Frank, on the other hand, came onto the show shouting and left it shouting, literally, hollering at Estelle as their son was hauled off to jail in the final episode, “We have to beat the traffic!” If the show’s mantra was No Hugging, No Learning, Stiller’s final scream was sort of a perfect epitaph.

 Stiller died on Monday. He was 92.

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