Stiller, although a supporting player on Seinfeld, created some of the Emmy-winning show’s most enduring moments: co-creator and model for the “bro”, a brassiere for men; a Korean War cook who inflicted food poisoning on his entire unit; an ever-simmering salesman controlling his explosive temper with the shouted mantra, “Serenity now!”
Stiller earned a 1997 Emmy nomination for his indelible performance. In a 2005 Esquire interview, Stiller recalled that he was out of work and not the first choice for the role of Frank Costanza, father to Jason Alexander’s neurotic George.
“My manager had retired,” he said. “I was close to 70 years old, and had nowhere to go.”
He was initially told to play the role as a milquetoast husband with an overbearing wife, Estelle, played by Estelle Harris. But the character wasn’t working – until Stiller suggested his reincarnation as an over-the-top crank who matched his wife scream for scream.
It jump-started the septuagenarian’s career, landing him a spot playing Vince Lombardi in a Nike commercial and the role of another over-the-top dad on the long-running sitcom King of Queens.
While he was known as a nut-job father on the small screen, Stiller and wife Meara raised two children in their longtime home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side: daughter Amy, who became an actress, and son Ben, who became a writer, director and actor in such films as Dodgeball, There’s Something About Mary and Meet the Parents.
He and Ben performed together in Shoeshine, which was nominated for a 1988 Academy Award in the short subject category.
Stiller was considerably quieter and reflective in person than in character – although just as funny. The son of a bus driver and a housewife, Stiller grew up in Depression-era Brooklyn. His inspiration to enter show business came at age 8, when his father took him to see the Marx Brothers in the comedy classic A Night at the Opera.
Years later, Stiller met Groucho Marx and thanked him.