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Q&A; with Jerry Stiller : In Up-and-Down Career, He’s a Hit on ‘Seinfeld’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jerry Stiller is half of the enduring comedy team of Stiller and Meara , with wife Anne. He’s also the father of Ben Stiller, creator of the Emmy Award-winning “Ben Stiller Show” and director of the recent film “Reality Bites . " (Amy--Jerry and Anne’s other child--plays a phone psychic in the movie.)

These days, however, he’s best known as Frank Costanza, the excitable, TV Guide-collecting father of the hapless, womanizing George on “Seinfeld.” Frank will give George further grief in a one-hour episode tonight and return s for the season finale May 19.

Stiller initially passed up the “Seinfeld” gig for a play, but he was asked again after the production ended its run, and no one seems more surprised by his latest bout of success than Stiller himself.

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Question: Given your character, is it surprising that George turned out the way he did?

Answer: I keep asking myself that same question. I was very much like George when I was his age. I had no balance. When you think about George, this is a guy who had a mission; he’s not Generation X, he’s Generation Why. I’m Generation Who Knows? My father probably behaved toward me the same way, he gave me the leeway to do what I wanted to do, but nobody wanted me to be an actor. . . . My mother wanted me to have the best things in life, but was shocked when she saw this kid on a stage--I did an amateur night when I was 15, and I bombed. She told me, “You stink!”

Q: What’s the difference in TV’s impact now and in Ed Sullivan’s day?

A: This is much more explosive, instantaneously. We did 36 of the Sullivan shows, and (our success) was a cumulative thing. We started out as steady characters. It wasn’t just one performance. But here, it’s like, boom! People started recognizing me immediately as George’s dad. Suddenly, just one show has it all. When you’re on Sullivan, you were maybe one of 10 acts. There’s Jimmy Durante or Ella Fitzgerald in the real spotlight, and we were always kind of sneaking in the side door. . . .

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When you’re younger, you can feel (the excitement of fame coming on). It’s a very big excitement, because it’s never happened to you before. It’s like being in love for the first time, when you’re on Ed Sullivan. . . . Now, we’ve had a few of these incarnations. And we’ve disappeared a few times in our career too. And now when they pop up again, you’re grateful. Because more than anything, the desire to be an actor never goes away.

Q: Why doesn’t there seem to be any new comedy teams anymore?

A: It’s always been tough for teams to stay together. Because whatever takes place that brings the team together may not have been strong enough to keep it alive after success comes. That’s the strange thing--the fight is more important than winning the fight. Something usually takes place in one or both of the people--"Well, I really wanted all my life to be up there alone, and the partner was there to help me get there.” But you don’t know that when you’re starting out, because you’re thrown together by circumstances.

Usually, teams start when there’s such desperation in each person’s lives that there’s nowhere to go. And they cling to each other. They suddenly go out, and with that passion and desperation there’s an instant identification with an audience who has also experienced that, and then when success starts to take place, they’ve achieved that momentary satisfaction, and now they have higher aspirations--"I want to play Hamlet.” “I want the spotlight on my face, not your face. I don’t need you anymore!” It’s that umbilical break, and then, usually, everything goes downhill from there.

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Q: It’s even tougher when you’re married to your partner.

A: It’s complicated, because you ask yourself, “What are we here for? Did we get married because we wanted to get onstage, or did we marry because we love each other?” When you get visible, you can’t talk to your wife like she’s one of the guys--"You didn’t pause for my laugh"--and everything comes into examination.

At one point, Anne said, “I want to have kids.” And I said, “Kids? What do we need kids for?” (laughs) She said, “I’m not waiting for the big break. Either we have kids or we don’t really have a marriage.” And I had to digest this--I was in my 30s and still looking for something to happen in front of an audience for myself. Anne saw it in a much different light, and I’m very happy it turned out that way, because the idea of having kids pushed us into another way of thinking.

Annie said, “We’re going to get pregnant tonight.” We were in Chicago, working two shows a night at the Happy Medium. . . . Of course, the sketches quit working when she got pregnant--one was about a guy meeting a girl for the first time, and Anne’s out to here.

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Q: You were thanked at the end of “Reality Bites.” Was that just for being Dad?

A: I still don’t know what that was all about. I never asked, to be honest. People ask, “Why weren’t you in the film?” I think Ben had his own idea of what he wanted this to be. I looked through that film and thought, “What could I have played?” . . . I saw my son up there, doing his thing, and thought, “You can’t sit there thinking why he didn’t use you--the level of selfishness! God Almighty! What more do you want? Your kid’s successful--now you want to be in his movies?” (laughs)

Q: Did you try to steer your kids into show biz?

A: I had no plan, and I know Anne couldn’t care less about it. She didn’t say, “You should study diction” and all of that, except that I said that they should take the violin. . . . The only thing I did terrible in my life was when we were on the Mike Douglas show, co-hosting, the talent coordinator said, “Would you bring the kids on?” And Anne said, “We don’t bring kids on the show.” And I said, “Well, why don’t we? They’re kids, we’re in the business.” I convinced Anne to let them come on: “They’re cute, they’re in the business, they’re around it all day, they might as well be a part of it.”

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So they asked, “Do they do anything?” I said, “Well, they play the violin.” They had taken about four lessons. They asked, “Can they play on the show?” Anne said, “If they play the violin on that show, we got no marriage.”

Finally, I said, “Let ‘em play the violin, they’re kids, what’s going to happen?” So they came out with these little Yamahas, and they played “Chopsticks” or “Adeste Fideles,” and they were humiliated. The kids at school told them they were terrible, I got a letter from a woman who said, “How dare you bring your children on the show, exploiting your kids? Who the hell do you think you are? A thousand kids could’ve done better than that.” And they never forgave us for that, either one of them. . . . After that, they never attended any of those sessions again.

Q: Do you consider yourself an actor or a comedian?

A: I used to think I was a comedian, and then when I started to think I was funny, my wife said, “You’re not very funny. You’re better off when you don’t try to be funny.” So then I started to be an actor, but I didn’t think I was that good of an actor. So who knows?

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* “Seinfeld” airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on NBC (Channels 4, 36 and 39).


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