Jerry Stiller had already built a career to be proud of before he joined Seinfeld as Frank Costanza, father to Jason Alexander’s George Costanza. But for most comedy fans, that grumpy dad character has become his greatest legacy. And Stiller’s son, Ben Stiller, is pretty sure he’d be fine with that.
“I think Seinfeld really changed his life, because he was at a point in his career where the phone wasn’t really ringing,” Stiller said. “And he and my mom had really stopped working together. 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.”
Jerry Stiller and his wife, Anne Meara, made regular appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show together in the 1960s and ’70s. During his New Yorker interview, which is well worth reading in full, Ben Stiller recalled his sister overhearing their parents rehearsing a sketch in which they hated each other—and mistaking it for a real argument. Later on, he said, he would mistake a real argument for a bit.
As for Seinfeld, Stiller told The New Yorker, “He loved working with those actors, and he would prepare like he was doing Shakespeare. He would break it down, a sitcom script, and figure out, ‘Why am I saying this? What’s the motivation for this character? What’s his history?’ So it came out of him putting everything into it, and not trying to be funny. And yet, of course, it came out so funny because he was just putting everything into it.”
As for how his father would have felt about Frank Costanza becoming the cornerstone of his legacy, Stiller said that the only reason it might have bothered him was because he would have preferred to have been remembered for his earlier comedy work with Meara.
“He would be, like, ‘But, Anne—Anne is amazing,’ Stiller said. “And I can understand that, because they did such incredible work together over the years. But I don’t think he was one of those actors who was, like, ‘I have to be known for something else.’”
Stiller’s Seinfeld performance ultimately earned him an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series in 1997. as well as the American Comedy Award for Funniest Male Guest Appearance in a TV Series in 1998.
“I think he was grateful for the success,” Stiller said. “And I think that comes from where he came from—he didn’t have an ego about those sorts of things. He so loved being a part of that show, and he embraced it fully.”