Simply because Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara were married did not mean they could defy the show business tradition that most comedy teams have the life span of a fruit fly.
So seven years ago they cooled their act—onstage, not at home—and began pursuing independent careers. “I love Anne, but if I had depended on her in my professional life,” Jerry, 49, says, “I would have lost her as a wife. We felt like two guys.” Recalls Anne, 44, “I didn’t know where the act ended and our marriage began.”
Now, with both of them having made it handsomely on their own, Anne says, “We’ve never really been on the same wavelength until recently. Jerry made an important discovery—that he was an entity.” Anne made one of her own. “I always wanted things my way. I used to say everything he did was wrong. It was a marvelous thing to discover I could be wrong too.” The upshot, of course, is that Stiller and Meara are thriving again as a team.
Their Blue Nun wine commercials on radio are their longest-running and certainly most lucrative success, with a three-year, $300,000 contract. (In one exchange Jerry, at a high school reunion, says: “I noticed a little Blue Nun next to the fruit compote.” Anne replies: “It’s probably Teresa Pensibini. We always knew she had the calling.”) In the seven years they have been doing the spots, Blue Nun sales have risen from 90,000 cases a year to over 800,000. Stiller and Meara also do other commercials (Lanier dictating equipment and Jack-in-the-Box restaurants), summer stock, their own syndicated five-minute TV show (as a filler for local programs) plus talk shows and variety spots.
Much of their material is Jewish-Irish ethnic humor that cuts close to the funny bone of their own 23-year marriage. Fittingly, they met in a theatrical agent’s office after both had been turned down for a new play.
Anne, only child of a devoutly Catholic Long Island lawyer (her mother died when she was 6), studied with acting teacher Uta Hagen. “I was a dedicated, boring student,” Anne recalls. “The last thing I wanted was to be a comedienne.” Jerry was one of four street-wise kids on the Lower East Side. His father, a bus driver, wanted Jerry to train as a dental technician. But after the Army (“I had a tremendous macho complex and was a very bad soldier”), he went to Syracuse University on the Gl Bill to study acting. “Girls weren’t interested in me in college,” Stiller says. “They thought I was weird.” Anne Meara saw through the facade. “I was always putting people on, trying to be funny,” he admits. “She said, ‘Why don’t you just be what you are?’ In two months we were married.”
Eight years of less-than-stardom followed before they decided to collaborate. “It occurred to us that we were an unlikely couple,” says Jerry. They offered differences in ethnic background, height (two inches), color of hair (Anne is currently a strawberry blonde) and personality (she is flip and funny, he is wry and intense). “People would say to Anne, ‘Heh, you’re married to him?’ I thought we could use it.”
So did Ed Sullivan, who eventually had them do their Hershey Horowitz-Mary Elizabeth Doyle routine on his show 34 times. (Anne in real life had converted to Judaism in 1961, just before the birth of their daughter. Why? “I wanted my children to know who they were.”) By 1969—when Blue Nun first hired them—they had inherited the title vacated by Elaine May and Mike Nichols as anxiety comedy’s top couple.
Then came the split. Anne blossomed in movies like The Out-of-Towners and Lovers and Other Strangers. She was a hit in 1973 on ABC’s summer series The Corner Bar and in 1975 got her own (if short-lived) show as the tough-talking lawyer on Kate McShane. It earned her an Emmy nomination. This year she was nominated again as Valerie Harper’s pal Sally on Rhoda. She also plays Sister Geraldine in the Watergate film allegory, Nasty Habits.
Jerry, meanwhile, began roaming the game-show circuit, “trying to cope with the fact that my wife was doing well.” Occasionally he was cast with Anne and worried that “they brought me in just so my feelings wouldn’t be hurt.” But he kept paranoia at bay long enough to appear in Airport 1975 and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and to star in both the Broadway and movie versions of The Ritz. He even got a CBS series, Joe and Sons, which outlived Kate McShane by two months, and landed a cameo in Nasty Habits. Says Valerie Harper, “Anne’s very quicksilver. She moves rapidly and makes a choice. Jerry will stop and think. But the result is the same: they are committed to getting it good. Neither of them ever phones it in.”
Their finances are now in admirable condition, thanks to their multimedia successes. (“We sell out with class,” Anne maintains. “We won’t do a commercial unless it’s funny and the product is decent.”) Yet they still live in the same seven-and-a-half-room Riverside Drive co-op they rooted in 11 years ago, and while Vegas and its four-week runs beckon, they refuse to stay away from their children, Amy, 15, and Ben, 11, that long.
When they were simultaneously shooting TV series on the West Coast, Anne or Jerry flew back to New York on alternate weekends, and this year Anne is dropping out of Rhoda to avoid the commute. That is no way for an actress to get ahead, but then common sense has never been the ruling force in the Stiller-Meara household. “If there was any logic to it,” Jerry reflects, “we never would have gotten married in the first place.”