When Seinfeld star Jerry Stiller passed away, his equally famous son Ben was naturally devastated. But the younger Stiller also wanted to tell the world about his father’s legacy. During an in-depth interview with magazine The New Yorker, Ben discussed Jerry’s last days and the relationship between father and son.
Now, it had been Ben who first announced the news of Jerry’s death. On May 11, 2020 he wrote on Twitter, “I’m sad to say that my father, Jerry Stiller, passed away from natural causes. He was a great dad and grandfather, and the most dedicated husband to Anne for about 62 years. He will be greatly missed. Love you Dad.”
As you’d expect, there was both sorrow for Jerry’s passing and sympathy for the Stiller family. For instance, actor Parry Shen tweeted, “I had the honor of working with your Dad on [The King of Queens]. After… I was canned… your father talked to the producers and got me my job back. When I thanked him, he said, ‘Hey, it’s not Shakespeare!’ A class act and a legend.”
And of course Jerry’s fellow actors from Seinfeld, the massively popular sitcom, paid tribute to him. Actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus wrote on her account, “He was so funny and such a dear human being. We loved him.” Show creator Jerry Seinfeld tweeted simply, “Jerry Stiller’s comedy will live forever.”
Then Jason Alexander, who played Jerry’s onscreen son, wrote on Twitter, “Such sad news that my beloved friend, Jerry Stiller, has passed. He was perhaps the kindest man I ever had the honor to work beside. He made me laugh when I was a child and every day I was with him. A great actor, a great man, a lovely friend.”
If you didn’t already know, Jerry Stiller had been a well-respected comedic actor before Seinfeld. Yes, in the 1960s he was a double-act with his wife, Ben’s mother, Anne Meara. And the two of them appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and even had their own sitcom. Of course, they also had children, Ben and his sister Amy.
Now, Anne and Jerry were able to keep their marriage healthy as they progressed with their comedy careers, though it took work. You see, in 1977 Jerry told People magazine, “I love Anne, but if I had depended on her in my professional life I would have lost her as a wife. We felt like two guys.”
Touchingly, Jerry used material from his own childhood to create his comedy. You see, he’d grown up during the Great Depression, and money was always an issue. In a 2005 interview with Esquire he remembered, “During the Depression, my father took me to vaudeville. When we came home, we had no money. I remember my mother turning her pocketbook upside down. Not a penny.”
The famous comedian went on, “As [my father] headed for the door, he said to [my mother], ‘You hate vaudeville.’ And she said, ‘Maybe if I wasn’t with you, I’d like it.’ I remembered that all my life, and I would use it onstage with Anne. The difference is our audience would laugh at it.”
In the end, Jerry would outlive Anne, and naturally her death was a huge blow to him. Indeed, in 2015 he recalled to People magazine, “There were no walls between us in any way. We both knew what the other was thinking even when we weren’t listening. We also shared the same desire to be in front of an audience and make people laugh.”
Although Anne was, “as funny as anybody who was considered a giant in comedy back when we started,” she also wanted to be a mom, Jerry said. He told People , “She loved being a mother. That was even more important to her than being onstage.” However, her 2015 death, he said, had brought him closer to Amy and Ben.
So when Ben spoke to The New Yorker after Jerry’s death, he took some time to remember both his parents and their relationship. He recollected, “They were very different people, but they were so, so devoted to each other. A very beautiful and imperfect relationship, as every relationship is. And so that was our life. And it was part of all of it for us.”
In the interview, Ben remembered that when he was a young boy he performed in a play for his father, and observed his reaction. He said, “I remember him having this big smile. It wasn’t a laugh, but it was him just appreciating seeing his kid performing. I think he just loved seeing his kids act, and do their thing.”
Interestingly, Jerry had always been introspective about how he was as a father. In 1999 he told Esquire, “The only time things got to reality was when the kids came. I’d gotten a job on a tour that paid enough for the doctor’s bills. The tour ended four days before Amy was supposed to be born, but she came four days early. As I finished the last show, I got the call.”
The older Stiller went on in typical comedic fashion, “What could I do? I was making a living. Ben? Missed [his birth], too. I was working. He was also born too soon. These kids have always screwed me up. They promise me a date and mess me up. I’m probably blocking it out, because Ben was the worst of all: cesarean. Anne was by herself. But they forgave me. Every once in a while, I get a knock here and there.”
Jerry continued, “Then it got to the point where Ben was on his own. We were trying to be as close as we could be, but I had to be very careful with what I said. I was insulting him without knowing it. He’d say, ‘Dad, I just made a $20 million movie with Jim Carrey – why are you asking me if I’m dressed warm enough?’ Hey, I’m still your father. I still care how you take care of yourself.”
Of course, when Ben made it big in Hollywood he remembered to bring his father along for the ride as well. Yes, the pair of them appeared in multiple projects together, including Zoolander and its sequel, Zoolander 2, Anchorman and The Heartbreak Kid. In some cases they played father and son on screen, too.
When Ben spoke to The New Yorker he was asked, “Do you think it was important to your parents that you and your sister turned out to be funny?” He answered, “Interesting, but I don’t think so at all. When they knew that we both were interested in acting, and going into show business, I think they were both conflicted.”
As Ben went on to explain, “And, at the same time, I think he also was so nurturing of us, as creative people, and he wanted to try to foster that as much as he could. It’s kind of that thing where you go, ‘Okay, if you’re really going to go and try to do this, until you actually try to do it, you don’t know how hard it can be.’”
During the interview Ben remembered when he and Jerry had appeared on Late Night With Conan O’Brien back in 1996. The pair of them had done a sketch for the show where Jerry dragged a reluctant Ben out onto the stage and jokingly fought with him the rest of the night.
Ben said, “When my dad died, I was looking at some old clips of the two of us on Conan, like 25 years ago. And I look at myself, like, ‘What was I thinking? Who is that person?’ And I’m remembering that of course I wanted my dad on there with me, because I knew my dad would be funny. And I would dread the talk-show appearances, and it was like cheating to ask him to come and help.”
Indeed, and the younger Stiller mused on how Seinfeld had brought his father’s talents to a new generation. He said, “I think Seinfeld really changed his life, because he was at a point in his career where the phone wasn’t really ringing. And he and my mom had really stopped working together.”
Ben continued to explain to The New Yorker, “So, for someone who’s thrived on work and thrived on being funny and having an interaction with an audience, it really changed everything for him. I read in one of the obituaries that he had only done about 25 shows in the whole series. And, given the fact that he made such an impact, I hadn’t even realized that.”
Touchingly, despite the renaissance in his career, Jerry didn’t discuss his work with his children. In his 1999 Esquire interview he said, “I never once asked Ben whether he watched me on Seinfeld. I didn’t want our relationship to be based on what we do at work. Hard to believe, but it’s true. I never want them to think that my life is more important than they are.”
So the love between the Stiller family was obvious. And Ben also told The New Yorker that he and Amy had been there when Jerry died. Asked by the interviewer whether that had been the case, he answered, “Yeah. My sister and I were able to be with him… which I’m very, very grateful for.”
Then the magazine asked, “What were the last few weeks like? Was his sense of humor there at the end?” And Ben responded, “He was just slowing down a lot, and he was dealing with a lot of issues. And so the last week or two were tougher for him. But he went peacefully, and he had a sense of humor, for sure, until the end.”
But Ben added, “I hesitate to call it a sense of humor. He was just funny, and so he was always himself. He was almost 93, and I think his body was kind of at that point where it was time.” Indeed, the elder Stiller had previously been admitted to hospital in 2019 for what was labelled a “health scare.”
Then The New Yorker brought up that Ben himself was a parent. Of course, he has two children, Ella and Quinlin, with his ex-wife Christine Taylor. The interviewer asked him, “You must have thought about how you should, or could, parent your own children. Are you more like a Jerry or an Anne?”
Ben answered, “I think I probably, ultimately, would have to defer to my kids to give you that answer. I’ve found, as a parent, that my perception sometimes of what I’m doing is not what the kids are perceiving at all. I know that, growing up, I was, like, ‘Oh, I’m not going to make that mistake.’ And, of course, I made totally different mistakes, and made some of the same mistakes, too, not realizing.”
The actor went on, “And I think that’s something a lot of parents probably can identify with. I have a daughter who wants to study acting, and so there are these parallels I see in my own life. And I try to navigate my own way. But, like I said, your parents are just a part of you.”
Ben mused, “Especially now, I think, having both of them gone now. I feel like what I take away from them is this deep love and support that they always had. At the end of the day, it’s what you have inside, what you feel inside of your parents, that you keep with you. And so I hope, at the end of the day, that’s what I can leave my kids.”
That interview wasn’t the only one Ben did about his father’s passing. He also appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, keen to have the “chance to talk.” And there he shared stories about some of the funniest moments he’d had with Jerry, and also talked about what he was like as a grandfather.
For instance, Ben said that his daughter Ella had been in a school play. “He came to see it at school and afterward I said ‘Dad what’d you think?’ And he said ‘I didn’t care for it.’ I said ‘What are you talking about?’ He said ‘Ella was great, Ella had the commitment and she was shining up there, but I didn’t feel the rest of the kids were up to it.’”
And Ben also spoke to Today on May 24. Asked how he was doing, he said “I’m doing okay. You know, it’s sad, it’s sad when you lose a parent and he was a great guy. I do feel very fortunate right now at this time that we were able to be together… I was fortunate enough so that he could be at home so I’m very grateful for that.”
The younger Stiller went on, “I have to say it’s been really heartwarming to see how much he touched people, how beloved by people he was. I knew that, but you know really when something like this happens you really feel it. I know this would have made him feel great, as a kid from the Lower East Side who grew up very poor during the Depression.”
What’s more, Ben brought up the fact that Jerry had served in World War II. He said, “His parents didn’t have any connection with show business and [it] wasn’t the happiest household, there was a lot of fighting when he was a kid, and when he was 16 he kinda lied about his age and went and joined the army.”
Then the A-lister shared some lesser-known stories about his father’s time in the service. He remembered a story where “there was this one MP [Military Policeman] that was not nice to him, and had said kinda some mean anti-Semitic things to him, and this MP was playing against them [at football] and he got to tackle him.” Indeed, Jerry ended up breaking the guy’s ankle.
Furthermore, the entire football stadium cheered for Jerry when it happened. Ben mused, “I just think about that because you know he was so… In real life he was so quiet and sweet, but underneath he had this… he was kind of like this volcano underneath. He had a lot of emotion, and that would come out on Seinfeld, in these characters, but it never really came out in real life.”
In fact, the disconnect between Jerry and his Seinfeld character was something Ben mentioned in his New Yorker interview, too. He said that at his father’s funeral, “the rabbi was talking about his character on Seinfeld. And I said, ‘He never once raised his voice to me, ever, as a kid. Ever.’ So I watch that and I laugh, because I’m, like, ‘Who is that person?’”
That was how good Jerry was at acting. Ben told The New Yorker, “That’s what I think is the beauty of his career, and his life – that he had this incredibly long career that ended in a great way. And nobody has to be reminded of what he did… his work is going to live on. To me, that’s the beauty of what he did.”