Frank Costanza didn’t appear until the fifth season of Seinfeld, and he was only featured in 30 of 180 episodes.
And yet in that handful of episodes, Frank Costanza managed to give us Festivus, seething rage over a rejected loaf of marble rye, and “Serenity Now!”
If you were alive in the 90s or just really love great television, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Jerry Stiller breathed such life — or maybe it was the rage? — into the character Frank Costanza that it only took a handful of episodes for him to leave an indelible mark on pop culture.
It takes moxie to create such a memorable character, and Jerry Stiller had it. Here’s how:
Moxie knows laughs are serious business.
The opportunity to play Frank Costanza came along late in Stiller’s career. He’d spent decades as half of the Stiller and Meara comedy team. The other half was his “better half,” his wife Anne Meara.
Stiller’s career in show business started in the 1950s after he graduated from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree in Speech and Drama. The New York City native found steady work acting in Shakespeare and other plays before meeting his wife Anne, also an actor and discovering that the two of them together made a phenomenal comedy duo. The two teamed up and enjoyed decades touring comedy clubs, appearing on television variety shows and commercials.
Stiller’s approach to acting and comedy was deep and thoughtful. He drew on his training and experience to dig deep into characters and truly understand who they were and how they would think and react.
“He would break it down … and figure it out, ‘Why am I saying this? What’s the motivation for the character? What’s his history?’” recalls his son Ben Stiller, a successful actor and director in his own right. “So it came out of him putting everything into it, and not trying to be funny. And yet, of course, it came out so funny because he was just putting everything into it.”
It was that deep consideration and process that led to the development of Frank Costanza as we know him. The character was originally written as bland and timid, and Stiller sensed in rehearsals that it just wasn’t working. He dug more deeply into Costanza and came back instead with the seething, unpredictable rageaholic that we all now know and love.
Moxie keeps first things first.
Stiller and Meara roared along successfully through the 50s, 60s and into the 70s. Of the two, Stiller was the more in love with comedy and the more comfortable looking for the laugh on the stage. Meara was a natural, and the team lived and breathed their work together all while raising their son Ben and daughter Amy in their New York City apartment.
Ben and Amy grew up listening to their parents write bits and workshop scenes. They were occasionally unsure if their parents were actually arguing with one another or simply rehearsing an argument between a disgruntled married couple.
But by the 70s, the strain was beginning to show and began taking a toll on their marriage. Despite their success, Stiller and Meara put a pause on their professional partnership rather than risk their relationship. Meara found a number of steady acting roles and began to branch out in other directions, and Stiller did the same, and their love for one another remained strong. They were married for more than 60 years until Meara passed away in 2015.
In real life, Stiller bore little resemblance to Frank Costanza, according to his son Ben.
He never raised his voice at his children, and certainly wasn’t prone to wild public fits.
Instead, Stiller was always looking for a way to help and support his children. He was ready with encouraging words, or an introduction, or a connection or whatever else he could offer. His generosity wasn’t limited to his children, either. He was ready, too, to listen to the dreams and aspirations of a random fan on the street.
On his passing, coworkers from his Seinfeld days all remarked on his kindness. Frank Costanza might have had a mile-long list of grievances, but Jerry Stiller had a mile-long list of blessings he generously shared.
It is also worth mentioning that Jerry Stiller played 8 seasons as Arthur Spooner, the father of character Carrie Heffernan (Leah Remini) on CBS’s the beloved situation comedy “King of Queens” starring Kevin James. Stiller said that this role tested his acting ability more than any other, and before being a part of The King of Queens, he only saw himself as a “decent actor.”
Jerry Stiller’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerry_Stiller