Stiller is more than just a yeller

The comedic actor weighs in on showbiz, famous kids and Lenny Bruce

Stephen Kessler's latest film, 'The Independent,' documents the fictitious career of Morty Fineman, a fading B-movie maker played by Jerry Stiller.

Struggling to complete his 428th film, the fiscally challenged 'Miss Kervorkian,' Fineman turns to his doubtful-but-adoring daughter (Janeane Garofalo) to help save the production Ñ and his career.

While Stiller's egotistical antics and Garofalo's stone-faced resignation make for a reasonably funny story line, it's the clips from Fineman's early works, interspersed throughout the film, that make for gut-busting entertainment.

The film screened recently at the Portland International Film Festival. It opens in Portland theaters Friday, March 1.

In a telephone interview, Stiller talked about show business, past and present, and the career choices of his children, Ben and Amy, both of whom are following in the famous footsteps of their parents, Stiller and Anne Meara.

Trib: First of all, I'm so pleased that you're not yelling at me. As Frank Costanza (George's father on 'Seinfeld') and Morty Fineman, you do a lot of yelling.

Stiller: I'll try to keep it down.

Trib: Do you find that most people know you as Frank, George Costanza's father on 'Seinfeld'? You and your wife have had illustrious comedy careers since the mid-1950s.

Stiller: I do have a lot of people who come up to me and say things out of the blue. A woman came up the other day and said, 'Mr. Costanza! 'Serenity now!' You're a very sick man.'

Trib: It seems like businessmen are running Hollywood now. What Ñ if anything Ñ do you miss about the old days of 'showbiz'?

Stiller: There's been a tremendous change from the way I was brought up, watching Marx Brothers movies and going to radio shows. Radio was the one avenue of entertainment during the Depression; these (radio) comedies cheered our lives. It all changed when people became more interested in movies than live entertainment.

Anne and I went from off-Broadway into improvisational theater in 1959. It was a whole new ballgame Ñ it was cerebral comedy, and we were trained actors jilted into this improv thing called The Compass Players (which later became the Second City comedy troupe).

Trib: How has show business changed for better or worse?

Stiller: The best things that happened to me usually came when a director said, 'I want him,' and I didn't have to read for it, like with 'Seinfeld' and 'The King of Queens' (the CBS comedy in which Stiller currently co-stars). I always felt that auditioning was a cruel process. The casting directors have become people who get their names on the credits now; they're as important as anybody else.

In the old days, you just went in to see the agent. Now, you're called in and you go in front of a screening body Ñ almost like a courtroom. There's a network person, a producer and a star who's often making judgments. It's cut a lot of the joy out of why people get into the business.

Trib: Comedians have had a tough time finding things to laugh about since Sept. 11. Do you think Lenny Bruce would be funny today?

Stiller: I think that Lenny Bruce would try to understand why the Islamic world has an issue with America. He'd look for the premise that would allow him to compare the cultures and make it funny. He'd say, 'Hey, does that mean we can go after the pyramids now? I mean, if they get the Twin Towers, what two things do we get?' He would have had a field day with it.

Trib: Comedic flair seems to be genetic. When did your kids decide to go into the business?

Stiller: Amy and Ben have always been in show business; both were on 'The (Ed) Sullivan Show' when Anne was pregnant. And then, before they were in school, they'd be on the road with us. So whether we knew it or not, it was osmosis. Ben would sit in front of the TV for hours, looking at shows. I had a lot of conflict about whether I should tell him to go do his homework, but I saw him watch it in a way that fascinated me. He was taking it in; he was learning how to direct.

Trib: Where did you meet your wife?

Stiller: I met her at a casting call. She was this young, sweet little girl who smelled nice. I had just introduced myself when she was called into the office, and five seconds later she came out screaming and crying. I said, 'What happened?' She said, 'He chased me all over the room!' But, you know, in those days it wasn't unusual.

So when my turn came, I went in and said, 'Why'd you chase that girl?' He said, 'Because I like her, and now it's your turn Ñ and he chased me around the room!'

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