By Peter Ames Carlin
October 16, 2000 12:00 PM

These days, the fans who bump into Jerry Stiller near his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side seem to think he’s related to the other famous Jerry in the neighborhood, the one he used to work with on NBC’s megahit Seinfeld. “People come up to me and say, ‘Jerry Seinfeld was just around the corner! Are you living with him?’ ”

Clearly, Stiller’s portrayal of Frank Costanza—the hotheaded father of Seinfeld’s deeply neurotic pal George on the sitcom—made an impression on TV viewers. For Stiller, it’s only the most recent turn in a five-decade career that has included roles in movies (Hairspray, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three), TV shows (The King of Queens, Archie Bunker’s Place) and an array of stage productions. But he says his best role, hands down, has been as the comedy partner of Anne Meara, 71, his wife of 47 years.

Stiller’s new autobiography, Married to Laughter: A Love Story Featuring Anne Meara, makes clear that Stiller’s real life with Meara and their kids Amy, 39, and Ben, 34, has been stable and often joyous. That description in no way applies to the onstage persona he has honed over the years. “As a performer he looks like a guy that life has crapped all over,” says Jason Alexander, who played George Costanza on Seinfeld. “You see it in that little hangdog face and those big, puppy eyes. It’s just a matter of time before he blows…. And that’s funny.”

And though it took a long time for the short (5’6″), fireplug-shaped Stiller, 73, to achieve a hit of Seinfeld proportions, even the most down-and-out stories in his autobiography radiate vitality. “I always found I could attract people by telling stories about what went on in my life,” he says. “I collected them over the years, but I didn’t know what I’d do with them.” After Seinfeld ended in ’98, Stiller figured his tales of dank cellar clubs, backstage screwups and late-life success could work as a memoir. “I’d tell these stories and people would say, ‘If this were in a book, I’d buy it!’ ”

The son of William, a bus driver, and Bella, a housewife, Stiller recalls growing up primarily in Brooklyn during the Depression, living in the projects while his parents scraped to keep food on the table. One of his fondest memories is going with his father to see the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera as an 8-year-old. “People were screaming and laughing,” Stiller says. Years later he thanked Groucho Marx personally. “I told him, ‘You made poor people rich,’ ” he says.

Eager to make the same kind of magic, Stiller (who served in the Army at the end of World War II) earned a drama degree from Syracuse University in 1950, then moved back to New York City to pursue acting full-time. While auditioning for summer stock in the spring of 1953, he bumped into Anne Meara and was immediately smitten with the tall, auburn-haired actress. After a brief courtship, they tied the knot that fall. “I really knew this was the man I would marry,” Meara says. “I knew he would never leave me.”

True enough, Stiller and Meara brought out the best in each other both offstage and on. And while both kept up separate acting careers, their greatest success came when they joined forces as a comedy act—much to Stiller’s surprise. “I didn’t even know for sure that she was funny,” he admits. But the comedic chemistry between the Brooklyn Jew and the Irish girl from the Long Island suburbs propelled them to regular appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and to nightclubs and coffeehouses across the country.

In addition to performing, Stiller and Meara also found the time to raise Amy, now a TV and film actress (Law & Order), and Ben, an actor-writer-director. “It wasn’t the typical family setup,” recalls Ben, now a star (There’s Something About Mary) in his own right. “We got to stay up late and go to TV studios. It was like this fun fantasyland. But we had no idea how hard they worked.”

And though Stiller isn’t ready to slow down just yet, he and Meara—who occupy the same spacious apartment on Manhattan’s Riverside Drive where they have lived for more than 30 years—spend their off-hours reading, working crossword puzzles and going out to eat.

So don’t be fooled: George Costanza’s dad isn’t a screamer, after all. “He’s actually very soft-spoken,” Meara says. “But maybe inside, there’s a Frank Costanza screaming to get out.”

Peter Ames Carlin

Natasha Stoynoff in New York City