No matter where they went, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara could charm just about anyone, and if they couldn’t, they usually had a witty retort at the ready.
Almost from the moment they met, the acting and comedy duo had electric chemistry.
They first met at a casting agent’s office in the mid-1950s. Meara was in tears – not because she hadn’t booked a part, but because of regular, old show business sexual harassment. She had been trying to fend off the advances of a casting agent. Stiller offered to take Meara out for coffee, and rather than picking up the check, Meara asked him to pilfer the silverware.
“I lived in the Village and my roommate, Joyce Arbuckle and me, we needed another set of silverware,” Meara explained when she and Stiller appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” in 2012.
“Did he do it?” asked host Joe Scarborough.
“Of course he did,” Meara said. “He wanted to sleep with me.”
Meara and Stiller followed in the footsteps of another funny twosome, George Burns and Gracie Allen. Like Allen and Burns, their chemistry radiated through their performances. They remained each other’s biggest fans through more than 60 years of marriage. They weren’t just a stellar comedy team – theirs was one of the great and lasting romances of show business.
Much of Meara and Stiller’s early humor was rooted in the ways that they made an odd couple: She was tall and Irish Catholic, and he was short and Jewish.
Stiller and Meara made an appearance years ago on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, making fun of computerized dating. For all its advantages, the computer still managed to pair Meara’s obviously Catholic Mary Elizabeth Doyle with Stiller’s very Jewish Hershey Horowitz.
Meara had recurring roles on “Rhoda,” “Kate McShane,” “Archie Bunker’s Place,” “All My Children” and “ALF.” In more recent years, Meara appeared in “The King of Queens” opposite her husband, and “Night at the Museum” with her son, Ben.
Their profession was a family affair. Ben Stiller made his first movie with a Super 8 camera Jerry bought him, and would later go on to “direct” his parents in their Yahoo Web series, “Stiller and Meara,” where they would discuss everything from Lady Gaga and “Jersey Shore” to Jerry’s lying about Meara’s father to get The New York Times to publish his obituary. Stiller told The Times that Meara’s father had written all of their material.
Meara was incredibly versatile. She brought humanity, grace and compassion to her portrayal of an elderly woman suffering from dementia when she played Mary Brady, Steve Brady’s mother and Miranda Hobbes’ (Cynthia Nixon) mother-in-law on “Sex and the City.” Writer and director Michael Patrick King wrote Mary with Meara in mind to play her.
It wasn’t the first time Meara acted opposite Nixon – in 1988, Nixon played Juliet opposite Meara’s nurse in a production of “Romeo and Juliet” at the Public Theater in New York.
But in “Sex and the City,” Meara’s character went from a devout, headstrong Catholic to an incredibly vulnerable woman who would wander into the street unaware of her surroundings after suffering a stroke. One of her most striking scenes occurred when Miranda found her lost on the street and eating pizza out of the garbage. Miranda, an arguably unsympathetic character, then takes Meara’s character home and gently bathes her.
In interviews, Meara could be downright acerbic.
“I said to Michael Patrick King, ‘I’m not getting in a g–d–- bathtub,” Meara said in a 2005 interview with the Archive of American Television. “I’m not taking my clothes off.’ He says, ‘You don’t have to worry. You will have clothes on. We’re shooting you from the shoulders.’”
Not only was King able to assuage her concerns, he brought her around full circle.
“I thought it was a terrific scene,” she said. “They did more with great economy. The writing was just wonderful.”
Meara proved in the same interview that she could switch effortlessly between being earnest and being a comedian. Sitting alongside her husband, she generously began to explain Stiller’s societal contributions outside of acting because she’d grown weary of talking about their personal lives.
“He can’t stop talking, but he doesn’t tell you some of the really great things he’s done,” Meara said. “And one of the really great things he’s done is he fought . . . he fought for the COBRA bill which extends health insurance for actors and performers.”
“I said to myself, ‘If this gets out in the paper, we'll never do another Blue Nun Wine commercial.’ It came out in The New York Times and I kept waiting for the axe to fall and it never happened,” Stiller said.
Meara interrupted. “I never would have mentioned the COBRA bill if I knew you were going to go on and on and list all your wonderful civil rights things,” Meara said. “Because it’s embarassing.”
She leaned forward, toward the camera and the interviewer, Gary Rutkowski. “Cut it out. But keep the COBRA part. That’s good,” Meara said. Then she turned to Stiller. “We talked about you enough now. That part’s over.”
Rutkowski asked Stiller if he had any stories about Meara. Before he could start talking, Meara cut in.
“Don’t get maudlin,” she said. “I really can’t stand that.”