- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 27, 2001

After five successful years (1993-98) on "Seinfeld" as the incredibly neurotic Frank Costanza, the impossibly neurotic George Costanza's (Jason Alexander) father, Jerry Stiller finally asked himself, "Where do I go from here?" He was pushing 70 at the time, enjoying a measure of financial independence and thinking about taking a well-deserved rest. Perhaps for the rest of his life.
A few weeks later, the role of certifiably loony father-in-law and recent widower Arthur Spooner on "The King of Queens" (Mondays, 8 to 8:30 p.m., CBS) was dumped in his lap.
Along with a generous offer, the CBS network let him know in no uncertain terms that there would be no show without him. Worried about his energy and stamina and reluctant to lock into a series contractually for five years or more, Mr. Stiller turned down the network.
Devastated, the network promptly cast another actor as the Arthur Spooner character. Movie star Ben Stiller's diminutive, grizzled father didn't budge from his decision until the hard-pressed network offered him a "huge salary." His replacement was dumped unceremoniously.
Suddenly, the 74-year-old comedic actor's objections became rather trivial.
"Believe it or not, this got to the point where I felt like I had everything in life," says Mr. Stiller, still stunned by the turn of events. "They coughed up big money, and I had mortgages to pay. They appealed to my actor's ego, and I thought it would have a short run like most sitcoms. I never dreamt this show would have a renewal after renewal. So, it was taking this job or sitting around watching it in reruns. And that's the way it worked out — you get to be pretty close to honest at my age."
Mr. Stiller also admits that he doesn't take downtime all that well.
"When I'm not working, destabilizing thoughts start taking over in my head," he says with a laugh. "I know my psyche well enough to know that I always have to work. In 'King of Queens,' I challenge myself to come up with a character as significant as Frank Costanza. I think I've done it with Arthur Spooner."
Though hardly in the same category as coal mining or sewer maintenance, co-starring in a sitcom for 22 or 24 episodes per season is considered backbreaking work in Hollywood. Mr. Stiller breaks his back for a very high fee working two weeks on and two weeks off from August until April. Whenever the L.A. set is dark, he flies home to New York City to maintain strong bonds with his wife of more than 35 years, actress-screenwriter Anne Meara.
He also has found out that the family that plays together stays together.
"Once in a while — not often enough — Anne and I get to act together, like on an episode of 'King of Queens' seven or eight months ago," Mr. Stiller explains. "Our daughter, Amy Stiller, was in it, too. Then Anne did a couple of scenes in 'Zoolander,' in which I co-star. Our boy, Ben, stars and directs. We have done a few other movies together, including 'Hot Pursuit' and 'The Suburbans.'"
"When you're shooting a scene, everything is happening in that moment, and you're not always sure about how to respond. When I'm on the set with 50 'Zoolander' crew members, I have to take orders from the boss — this kid directing a $20 million movie. Every time I didn't do the right thing, he'd say, 'Now, Dad, you'll have to do that again.' But I could feel that little hesitation in his voice. … No other director talks to me like that."
After a stint as a drama and speech major at Syracuse University in New York state, the pugnacious Mr. Stiller met Anne Meara. "We were married six months later," he says. "It's in my book, 'Married to Laughter.'"
They spent nearly a decade as a successful comedy team, with 36 appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show" among their hundreds of credits.
"Then, we had the kids and decided to split up the comedy act in order to keep the family together," Mr. Stiller says. "We juggled our schedules to provide a sane home for our kids. One of us was always there when the other was on the road. … We wanted fame, fortune and family, then found out there was no way to program it. You have to play it by ear."

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