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Remembering Jerry Stiller

The WWII veteran and accomplished actor graduated from Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts.

Jerry Stiller and Dick Clark poses for a photo
Jerry Stiller ’50 and Dick Clark ’51 had show business careers that spanned multiple decades. Stiller passed away May 11, 2020.

Jerry Stiller ’50, the comedian best known for his roles on the television sitcoms Seinfeld and King of Queens , died on May 11 due to natural causes. He was 92.

Stiller grew up in New York City, moving more than twelve times before finally settling in the lower east side of Manhattan. While attending a comedy show with his parents, Stiller was first inspired to be a comedian when he saw how laughter drew them together despite the stress of raising a family during the Great Depression.

In his 2000 memoir "Married to Laughter," Stiller wrote about his parents’ initial refusal to sign papers that would allow him to enroll in the Army Specialized Training Reserve Program. Stiller imagined getting a college education through military service. They finally relented, but the war ended before he could be deployed into combat.

Syracuse University instituted an open-door policy that promised admission to any servicemen and women returning from war, and Stiller attended the University in 1947 tuition-free thanks to the GI Bill for WWII veterans. Stiller was among students who lived in improvised barracks erected at the New York State Fairgrounds.

Stiller’s first of many performances in University productions was “Blossom Time.” In his memoir, Stiller wrote: “I learned firsthand what happened to my emotions when I heard an audience laugh. It was like being alive for the first time.” Stiller graduated in 1950 with a B.A. in speech and dramatic art.

Jerry Stiller and wife Anne Meara pose in cutout images
Stiller and Anne Meara performed as a comedy team in the 1960s, with more than 30 appearances on the on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Shortly after graduating from Syracuse, Stiller met another actor, Anne Meara, in 1953. The two were married, and they went on to form a comedy team, making more than 30 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show . Stiller’s success in the 1960s led to him being awarded the George Arents Award—Syracuse University's highest alumni honor, presented annually to alumni who have made outstanding contributions to their chosen field—in 1979. Stiller would be cast on the television sitcom Seinfeld in the 1990s, and despite appearing on less than 30 episodes, was universally beloved as the character Frank Costanza.

Jason Alexander, who played Frank's son George Costanza, said Syracuse University should be proud Jerry Stiller was Orange. “I'm sure Jerry Stiller was a bright light to the Syracuse community as he was everywhere he went,” says Alexander.  “He was a wonderful talent wrapped into a truly lovely man.”

Stiller remained active in theater throughout his career. Nick Zaino, a freelance writer for The Boston Globe, interviewed Stiller in 2005 ahead of a one-man show he was performing. Zaino framed the letter he received from Stiller that came with flowers thanking him for the interview. “He was a force of nature as a comedic actor, and also a delightful gentleman,” Zaino says.

“Jerry Stiller seemed like a man who had it figured out,” says stand-up comedian Ted Alexandro. “He had a long and happy marriage, a beautiful family and a legendary career spanning decades. His work from Stiller and Meara through Seinfeld and then King of Queens will live forever. A life so well lived, spreading joy to millions around the world.”

Brandon Dyer

This story was published on .

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