Anne Meara, who rose to stardom with her husband, Jerry Stiller, portraying what People magazine called “anxiety comedy’s top couple,” died Saturday in New York City. She was 85.
Her death was confirmed by publicist Kelly Bush, who represents actor Ben Stiller, one of Meara’s two children. No further details were provided.
The standup act known as Stiller and Meara came to prominence in the 1960s, with the couple performing 36 times on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
While they later collaborated on TV shows and commercials — most notably a series of funny spots for a white wine called Blue Nun, the two mostly followed separate professional paths.
Jerry Stiller became known for his TV work as George Costanza’s volatile father on “Seinfeld” and as the eccentric dad Arthur Spooner on the comedy “The King of Queens.” Meara received five Emmy nominations for her character roles on several TV shows, including her stint as Veronica, the cook on “Archie Bunker’s Place.” She performed in films and wrote plays that centered on couples as witty and down-to-Earth as Stiller and herself.
In their act, they used gentle ethnic humor to highlight the differences that drew them together.
He was the uptight Hershey Horowitz; she was his wife, the former Mary Elizabeth Doyle. In a sketch called “I Hate You,” they hilariously top one another in rueing the day they met, despising each other’s ancestors, insulting each other’s friends, and counting down the days before they divorce. He calls her former suitor a “mushface.” She calls him a “matzo head.”
In real life, they were married 60 years before her death.
When they met in 1953, they were both in New York looking for work. She burst out of his agent’s office in tears after the man chased her around his desk.
In his 2000 memoir, “Married to Laughter,” Stiller wrote that he took the upset, “angel-faced” young woman to a coffee shop, where she bemoaned the lecherous men of New York.
“A guy started following me down Broadway,” Meara told him. “He must’ve known I was an actress. I had a portfolio and was wearing makeup. When he got real close, he stated saying dirty words. I started to limp, hoping it would turn him off.
“`Keep it up, sweetheart,’ he said. `I love women with afflictions!’ “
Born Sept. 20, 1929, in Brooklyn, Meara was the only child of attorney Edward Joseph Meara and his wife, Mary Dempsey Meara, who died when her daughter was young. Meara was raised in Great Neck, N.Y., and then Rockville Centre, where she graduated from St. Agnes High School.
Hoping to become a serious actress, Meara studied with renowned teacher Uta Hagen.
“I was a dedicated, boring student,” she later recalled. “The last thing I wanted was to be a comedienne.”
But after eight years of struggling individually, Stiller and Meara teamed up as a comedy duo and their act caught fire, drawing comparisons to the earlier success of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Their appearances on the Sullivan show brought them fame and money but, as Meara told The Times in 2010, Sullivan terrified her.
“I wasn’t the only one,” she said. “There were international favorites from all over the world throwing up in the wings — singers and tenors and guys who spin plates. We were scared.”
In the same interview, Stiller recalled the wooden-faced host laughing until he cried as the couple performed, “and then calling us over, and saying, ‘You know, we got a lot of mail on that last show you did.’”
From the Catholics or the Jews? Stiller asked. “The Lutherans,” Sullivan responded.
In the 1970s, Stiller and Meara did their Blue Nun commercials. In a seven-year period, sales of the wine rocketed from 90,000 cases annually to more than 800,000.
The humor was as light as ever. In a scene at a high school reunion, Stiller reports that he “noticed a little Blue Nun next to the fruit compote.”
“It's probably Teresa Pensibini,” Meara replied. “We always knew she had the calling.
In 1995, Meara wrote “After-Play,” which was described by New York Times critic Vincent Canby as “the perfect New York comedy to attend before going out to dine with dear old friends from Los Angeles.”
Set at a restaurant as two couples dine, the piece was laced with one-liners and sharp repartee about the problems of aging. It didn’t take a religious point of view — Meara, who called herself “an Irish Catholic princess” had converted to Judaism early in her marriage — but it verged into the spiritual.”
“In my mind, it’s their Last Supper,” Meara told an interviewer. “They’re in a kind of limbo. They’re in a restaurant but not the one they made reservations for.”
In addition to her husband and son, Meara’s survivors include her daughter, Amy.