Jerry Stiller, 'Seinfeld' star and '60s comedy legend, dies at 92

Previously known as half of the comedy duo Stiller and Meara, Ben Stiller's dad found an audience with a whole new generation.
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By Ethan Sacks

Actor Jerry Stiller died from natural causes on Monday, but his life and legacy will continue to be honored every Dec. 23.

That scores of fans actually celebrate the fictional holiday of Festivus on that date is proof of how big a legacy the 92-year-old comedy veteran left on a younger generation through his role as Frank Costanza, the creator of the "Festival for the rest of us" on the popular sitcom, “Seinfeld.”

Stiller wasn't cast as his signature character until his late 60s, decades after he had found success as half of the comedy duo, Stiller and Meara, with his real-life wife, Anne Meara.

From left, Estelle Harris as Estelle Costanza, Jason Alexander as George Costanza and Jerry Stiller as Frank Costanza in "Seinfeld."Margaret Norton / NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images file

If Stiller and Meara made him famous, "Seinfeld" made him beloved.

Coupled with memorable cameos in his son Ben's "Zoolander" movies and a recurring part on "King of Queens," the elder Stiller enjoyed a career resurgence that would be the envy of his comedy contemporaries from the '60s.

Ben Stiller paid tribute to his father on Twitter on Monday.

"Milton Berle was the highest rated show back in the 1950s, they called him 'Mr. Television,' he was responsible for some of the highest ratings of the time," Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, told NBC News. "But he appeared in variety shows and variety shows don’t rerun, so their fame stretches only as long as the memories of the people who watched them the first time around.

"And that’s where Jerry Stiller, because of 'Seinfeld,' has guaranteed his place in enduring popular culture history. Those episodes are going to be running forever."

Jerry Stiller, Anna Meara at Kraft Music Hall -- "Love" circa 1971.NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images file

Born on June 8, 1927, in Brooklyn, New York, there was little to indicate the son of a bus driver would eventually rise to national recognition. After serving in the military in Europe in World War II, he graduated with a degree in speech and drama from Syracuse University in 1950 and embarked on an acting career.

Three years later, Stiller caught his big break — in the office of a casting director. That's where he met Meara, then a struggling actress looking for work and apparently a new set of cutlery for her apartment.

"From there we went down to the cafeteria… I bought her a cup of coffee because that’s all I could afford, really," Stiller recounted to MSNBC in 2012. "I said, 'Should I pick up the check?'

"She said, 'Forget about the check, pick up some silverware, stick it in your pocket and let’s get the hell out of here.'"

“Of course he did it. He wanted to sleep with me,” added Meara, ever the scene partner, in that "Morning Joe" interview.

The obvious chemistry between the tall Irish-Catholic Meara and the short, Jewish Stiller translated first to the stage — they joined the predecessor to Chicago's Second City comedy troupe in the mid 1950s and eventually became a popular nightclub act in New York City — and later on screen. Stiller and Meara became regulars on "The Ed Sullivan Show," appearing more than 30 times from 1963 to 1971, according to IMDB.

Their popularity waned in the '70s along with the variety show format, however, and by the end of the decade they were relegated to co-hosting HBO's "Sneak Preview" segments, plugging upcoming shows and movies on the then-fledgling cable channel. Though Stiller continued to work, he wouldn't find as much success again — until 1993.

That's when he debuted on "Seinfeld" as Frank Constanza, the father of one of the show's main characters, George Constanza (played by Jason Alexander). But at first, the veteran character actor was unimpressed by the role as it was written — a meek man dominated by his on-screen wife, played by Estelle Harris.

So he improvised.

Actors Ben Stiller and Jerry Stiller arrive at the HELP HAITI - Urban Zen HHRH in New York on February 11, 2011.Charles Eshelman / FilmMagic via Getty Images file

"For about three days (of rehearsals) we kept doing that thing, I felt more and more restricted and finally on the final day before we were supposed to shoot, I just took it on myself," Stiller later told the Archive of American Television.

"And when (Harris yelled the line), ‘You’re the one who ruined his life, you were never there for him, you were a lousy role model, you weren’t a real father,' out of desperation I (screamed back), 'You’re the one who killed him off, you slept in bed with him, you made him sandwiches, you never treated him like a real object.'

"The place broke up and laughed."

The rest was TV history.

Stiller said that the disconnect between the character’s Italian last name and his Borscht-Belt humor clicked for him when he started to think of the Constanzas as, “a Jewish family in the witness protection program.”

The enormous popularity of the role landed him another recurring part, on "King of Queens" as Arthur Spooner. His love interest? None other than Meara.

Stiller and Meara were married for 61 years, and worked together almost as long. Meara died in 2015, at 85.

Actors, comedians, writers and fans shared tributes and their favorite memories of Stiller, with "General Hospital's" Parry Shen crediting Stiller with helping him get rehired after he was "canned" on "The King of Queens."

"I had the honor of working with your Dad on 'TKOQ,'" Shen wrote in response to Ben Stiller's tweet. "After the table read, I was canned & your father talked to the producers & got me my job back. When I thanked him, he said, 'Hey, it’s not Shakespeare!' A class act & a legend."

"I absolutely adored the work of Jerry Stiller," tweeted singer Darren Hayes. "One of the funniest comedians ever, stole every scene he was in — not a single project that didn't get better simply for having him in it. I'm so grateful for all he gave."

Writer Frank Conniff called Stiller "the nicest man" he "ever met in show business" and Vanity Fair's executive digital director Mike Hogan noted that Stiller was "the only person" he'd ever interviewed who sent him a holiday card.

Stiller is survived by his children, Ben and Amy, both of whom followed in the family business — show business.

Gwen Aviles contributed.