How the actor turned a little game into a triumph.

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Jerry Stiller holding a large piece of metal that says
Jerry Stiller at the 2012 Made in NY Awards at Gracie Mansion in New York.

Stephen Lovekin / Getty Images

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Jerry Stiller, who died on Monday at the age of 92, had two very famous sons. In real life, Stiller was the father of Ben Stiller, and sometimes appeared on screen with him, who became one of the biggest movie stars of the 1990s and 2000. (Jerry and his wife, the late Anne Meara, also had a daughter, actress and actress Amy Stiller.) But Jerry Stiller is perhaps best known for his role as a fictional father on what many consider the best sitcom of all time, Seinfeld.

As Frank Costanza, Stiller was responsible for playing the father of George Costanza (Jason Alexander), best friend of the main character of the series, Jerry Seinfeld, but nevertheless a perpetual loser whose bad luck and lack of success with jobs and women often seemed justified by his meanness and his petulance. Meeting George’s parents gave viewers a glimpse of why George was the way he was, and what the writers really delivered: George’s parents (his mother, Estelle, was played by Estelle Harris ) were exactly the kind of bitter and acrimonious people you’d expect to have raised someone like George. If the harassing and insecure side of George came from his mother, Stiller gave Frank a mixture of anger and pride which enriched the character and the whole spectacle more than a dozen flashbacks could never.

The best joke on George’s sorry lineage may have come in an episode of Season 8, “Andrea Doria”. Long story, but George tries to find examples of the hardships he has endured in his life to impress a tenant association to land an apartment he wants. So he invites his parents to the cafe to refresh their memories of his adolescence. Before they can even get in, her parents are fighting – Estelle wants to sit somewhere else because she’s cold, but Frank doesn’t want to give up the cabin in which they are sitting. Like Frank, Stiller, in the light blue jacket that his character often wore, barely went from researching to reading the menu while sending his wife away, in a few seconds, shouting at the highest volume and gesticulating wildly. Frank then closes his menu decisively, the cries of a moment ago forgotten, and looks at George and asks: “Now, George, what do you want to know about your childhood? George, who just remembered everything that was miserable about his education, said, “Actually, I think I’m pretty clear on this. “

Stiller did not appear on Seinfeld until the fifth season of the show, and he was in less than 30 of the show’s 180 episodes, as reported in the New York Times and elsewhere. It’s worth the time. How is it that a character who was not even in the series until he was halfway through, then only a fraction of the time, became such an indispensable part of it? This is how indelible Stiller made Frank Costanza. Jerry’s fictional parents also appeared in the series – and had a big rivalry with the Costanzas who made Frank cry at one point: “Are you trying to keep us away from Del Boca Vista ?! – But Jerry Stiller eventually appeared in more episodes than they did, despite the late start and despite being the parents of a lower-cost character.

Season 9, the last in the series, included a few episodes that were no doubt built around Stiller, including “The Serenity Now”, featuring another of Seinfeld’s immediately recognizable phrases, as well as the episode that we gave Festivus. Although Frank was George’s father, the series found a way to integrate him into other storylines and scenes with other characters, and his scenes with Kramer are particularly memorable. The Festivus episode may be his best showcase: he visits Kramer to tell him about the holiday he celebrated while George was growing up, Festivus. With a distant look in his eyes, he recounts the invention of the vacation – it involved trying to buy a doll for George and physically fight with another man on it, but Stiller vows to do the ridiculous things that he said with complete certainty. The doll was destroyed, but a new party was born, “a Festivus for the rest of us,” he said, pantomimic to the sky as if he were drenching an invisible basketball. “It must have been some kind of doll,” says Kramer. Frank responds with a nod, his eyes wide with sincerity, “She was. And Stiller was kind of an actor.



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