Jerry Stiller was sounding serious for a change.

“It can be a painful process to discover who you really are, but only when you do will you start doing the kind of work that people pay attention to,” he said.

Stiller was reflecting on the lessons he said he learned from his latest role, in the TV adaptation of Saul Bellow’s novel “Seize the Day.” It airs on PBS’ “Great Performances” Friday (8 p.m. Channel 24; 9 p.m. Channels 28 and 15).

Stiller plays Tamkin, a greedy, street-smart con man who assumes the roles of philosopher/psychiatrist/substitute father to Bellow’s protagonist, Tommy Wilhelm (played by Robin Williams), a man in a mid-life crisis.

Directed by Fielder Cook, the drama does tap the comedic side of Stiller that audiences know from his regular appearances in TV commercials and comedy clubs over the years. But the grim reality behind Bellow’s story of life in a success-oriented society also calls on a more serious side of Stiller, who said the other day that he has “lived the role” to some extent off-screen.

“We’re all greedy, but Tamkin’s greed is close to what I have felt--wanting too much and not being connected to what really makes you happy,” Stiller said of his career choices over the years.


Noting that he will celebrate his 60th birthday on June 8, Stiller said playing a rare dramatic role “revitalized” his attitude toward life and his career. Now, he said, the title of the film applies to how he plans to pursue serious acting challenges in the future: “I may not seize them, but I’m certainly going to reach for them.”

Stiller, interviewed in the mid-Manhattan office where he and his wife, Anne Meara, write the sketches that have made them a famous comedy team, said he has no regrets that they carved out a career in comedy clubs and commercials in order to earn a living and raise a family. And he said they plan to continue as a team.

But he acknowledged that the “idealistic” image he first brought to acting became blurred with commercial considerations, and he sounded determined to restore some of that image.

“We’re each responsible for what we do in this business; we’re the architects,” Stiller said. “We’ve done what we’ve done, and I have no problem with that. But once you have an experience like this (film), you can’t go on with the same routine.

“When I first screened the (final) film, I thought, ‘Is that really me?’ ” he recalled. “It was a redemption of all the days I could have done better in this business. . . . I knew that whatever else people have seen me in, they’ll see this and say, ‘That’s Jerry Stiller.’ ”

He acknowledged that he wasn’t mourning roles he was offered and turned down; he hasn’t been offered career-making dramatic parts. “But the fact is, I didn’t make the kind of commitment to being uncomfortable that others (actors) make,” he said.

Stiller has been seen in demanding roles on stage, from doing Shakespeare at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater here to playing Nathan Detroit in a production of “Guys and Dolls” at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater. But he said he was jarred into thinking he should do more when he appeared on Broadway two years ago in David Rabe’s hard-hitting play about the film business, “Hurlyburly.”

“I started to have a serious dialogue with myself about why it was I set out to be an actor,” Stiller recalled.

“You get to the point where you realize there is a cutoff date. This makes you want to work harder and more truthfully. You become less willing to hide, and more anxious to be remembered.”