Jerry Stiller, who died on Monday, at the age of ninety-two, was one of the grownups in my New York apartment building whom I would sometimes see in the elevator, or in his apartment, where he might come upon me staring into his fridge before I retreated to his son’s room. When you are a kid, the parents of your friends, classmates, and neighbors are not distinct. They are more like benign features of a local scenery that might otherwise be unfriendly, even harsh, as was the Upper West Side of the late nineteen-sixties and seventies in which I grew up. But these parents occasionally distinguish themselves in some memorable, lasting way, which was the case with Stiller and me.
The Stillers lived on the fifth floor. We lived on fourteen. I first grasped what Stiller and his wife, Anne Meara, did, and what they were about, while visiting another friend, on fifteen. The parents of that household hosted a regular group that included Mel Brooks, Zero Mostel, Joseph Heller, and some others. It was on the fifteenth floor that I first heard Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s “2000 Year Old Man” comedy albums (the reanimated caveman’s favorite inventions are Saran Wrap and the nectarine) and through those grasped the tones of the Borscht Belt comedy-circuit sensibility and its manifestations on television. Also on fifteen, I heard some of Stiller and Meara’s comedy records, which seemed of a similar cast to Brooks and Reiner, but organized around the husband-and-wife dynamic. At that time, Stiller and Meara were like the married Crazy Eddie of wine, because their radio ads for Blue Nun were on heavy rotation.
It was from these comedy roots that Jerry drew the over-the-top performances for which he is well known—on “Seinfeld,” primarily, but elsewhere, too. A rube, a man of appetites, insistent, confused, but also innocent—that was the vibe of his characters. I don’t wish to take anything away from the qualities that make him beloved, but I valued him for other reasons. Jerry was for me a figure of nearly spiritual solemnity and warmth, on account of what his face was like at rest, the deep lines. I know him, and cherish him, most of all for an exchange that we had when we were alone in the elevator shortly after I turned ten, when my father had just died.
I was going down. The elevator stopped on the fifth floor. Jerry got on, turned to me, his face very still, and looked at me. I had no sense of how much he did or didn’t know my father. They certainly weren’t close, but who knows? Maybe they once shared a cab. The sheer camaraderie of raising kids who were the same age in the same building would have meant something. Perhaps my father’s status as a refugee from Vienna added to Jerry’s feelings about him. After a moment of looking at me, he said, “Your father’s death is a tragedy. A tragedy.”
I saw a tear coming down his cheek. I was shocked by this show of emotion, not because I didn’t think of Jerry as emotional but because I had never much thought of him. This tear, and the words, consoled me enormously and move me still. It meant a lot that another dad, a grownup in the building with some sense of my life and my world, would recognize the gravity of the situation. I don’t recall my response. But even as I was brought anew into my grief about my father as I stared into Jerry’s face, I felt powerfully that I had an ally who could participate in the impossible task of remembering my father, or at least remembering that feeling of loss.
The second phase of my relationship with Jerry and, to some extent, Anne began after I moved out of New York, because that is when I started spending a lot of time at my mother’s apartment. During the summer and over winter holidays, we would pile into her apartment on fourteen: my pregnant wife and I, at first; then my wife, baby, and I; then a second baby—all of us setting up in my childhood bedroom. Most of the parents of the old gang were still in residence, Jerry and Anne included. To my surprise, I made friends with Anne. She had always frightened me a little, so brassy and direct! But, one day, I escorted my brassy and direct five-year-old daughter on a trick-or-treating mission in the building, and Anne opened the door dressed as a witch, or was it a nurse? My daughter and Anne had a kind of conversation in which Anne gave the kid as good as she got. I was thrilled to have found someone who could at last stand up to my daughter.
At some point, Anne wrote a personal essay about her childhood for a publication that I edited. It was called “Old Nuns.” It toggles between the present and snatches of past memory, including a reminiscence about her and Jerry’s infrequent experiments with pot.
That tossed-off line about Jerry getting “very Hasidic” jumped out at me as both funny and familiar somehow. Once, as adults, Ben Stiller and I went back to his childhood apartment to look for some of the Super 8 tapes he had made as a kid, which were the basis for a project that we were working on. There, I passed a framed drawing of Jerry done by Al Hirschfeld, with the “Nina”s that Hirschfeld drew into his compositions. It was very spare and had that Hasidic lion quality that I associate with Jerry, a different note than the ones he struck in his acting.