Over the years (decades), I’ve had the opportunity to interview some big-deal celebrities. Among them: Madonna, Bob Dylan, Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Robert Redford, Tom Hanks, Jane Fonda, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, to name a few. Most of the time, they were part of a junket or press tour to promote a concert or a movie, but our limited time together didn’t make for a meaningful connection. Then I interviewed Jerry Stiller and all that changed.
In 1997, Stiller and his wife of four decades, Anne Meara, (when she died in 2015, they had been married for 61 years) were coming to town to open the 19th annual St. Louis Jewish Book Festival in early November. At the time, I worked at the Post-Dispatch and was charged with interviewing Stiller in advance of the couple’s St. Louis visit.
Typically, phone interviews with celebrities are OK, at best. There’s no gauging facial expressions or body language, and sometimes the conversations end up stilted or rote. But not with Stiller. I remember his booming, jovial voice peppering me with questions (wasn’t I supposed to be the one doing the asking?) and his genuine excitement finding out that like Stiller, my Jewish mother also hailed from Brooklyn.
Stiller told me that he and Meara “have terrific memories” of St. Louis, recalling how they replaced Mike Nichols, Elaine May and Shelley Berman at the Crystal Palace in the old Gaslight Square when the couple were with the Compass Players, based in Chicago. That improvisation troupe preceded Second City.
He also remembered how beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac would come through St. Louis Monday nights at the Crystal.
“It seemed St. Louis was the place,” Stiller said at the time of our interview. “Anne said it was the place where the word ‘pad’ came from. We had never heard that word before St. Louis.”
Of course, the word everyone knew in 1997 was “Seinfeld,” the Emmy-winning sitcom in which Stiller plays Frank Costanza, the crotchety father of hapless George. By the time Stiller and I spoke, Frank Costanza was already a TV legend whose mantra was “serenity now.” He knew Korean, cooked like a master chef (though he did inflict food poisoning on his entire Army unit) and engineered the Bro or Manzier — a bra for men — with Cosmo Kramer. What we didn’t know then was that only a couple months later, in December 1997, Frank Costanza would create the most famous made-up holiday in the history of the world, Festivus (for the Rest of Us), celebrated with the airing of grievances.
So natural and fun was my conversation with Stiller that it went on for well over an hour. I recollect him summoning Meara at one point to get on the line to say hello to me.
Shortly after my story appeared in the paper, I received a letter from Stiller thanking me for the article. “Your story in the Post-Dispatch would have made my mother proud,” he wrote. “If she were around today I’m sure she would kvell from your words.”
Never before — or ever again — did a celebrity take the time to personally write to thank me for an article, at least not that I can remember. The letter hangs to this day, framed on a wall in my home office. For several years after the interview, I received a holiday card from Stiller and Meara, always with a short, handwritten note from Stiller wishing me well.
Jerry Stiller died Monday from natural causes, at the age of 92. From where I sit, he was the epitome of a true mensch.
Serenity now, my friend.