Comic actor Jerry Stiller has died of natural causes at the age of 92.
I didn’t know much about him other than his stint as Frank Costanza on Seinfeld, which is how most of America got to know him too, despite a long running career where he spent most of his time on stage, and that mostly in vaudeville type comedic roles. He and his late wife Anne Meara had a recurring act on The Ed Sullivan Show, which I didn’t know about because that show was way after my bedtime.
When I was kicking around Hollywood for a few years doing this and that, I was booked on the sitcom “King Of Queens,’ around 2003 as an extra. The character of Carrie Heffernan (Leah Remini) worked for a law firm in the show, and I was an attorney sitting with other attorneys and legal staff at a conference table during a deposition.
The joke was that she was in the middle of this deposition — AT WORK — and her dad (Arthur, aka Jerry Stiller) keeps calling her and interrupting with something insignificant.
I’d worked only two other sitcoms during that time, ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ and ‘Just Shoot Me.’ I learned that even if you’re just an extra in a small scene, you arrive at the beginning of the shooting day, get told what you’re going to do and when, get approved by wardrobe, and then… sit around for hours and watch the crew put the whole thing together. The live audience isn’t ushered in until later in the day, after a couple of rehearsals and one camera run-through.
In professional film and TV shoots, stand-ins are not body-doubles, but they usually physically resemble the particular actor they’re hired to stand in for. For Jerry Stiller it wouldn’t necessarily have to be a guy his age who looks like him, but he’d be the same body type, ethnicity and height. I was in the running along with only two other guys for being a stand-in to Matthew Perry’s ‘Chandler’ when Friends was in production, but lost out to one of those other two.
The purpose of the stand-in is to literally stand in for the actor as the director and lighting people map out particular scenes before they roll camera. They figure it all out with the stand-ins and once they know what they want to do, the actors are called in and take over, then the stand-ins go sit it out.
When I arrived on the set that morning, Leah Remini, Kevin James, and Jerry Stiller were all there, milling around, rehearsing lines, grabbing some breakfast from craft services and generally getting ready to go. All I knew about Jerry at that time was he had a great run as George’s dad, Frank Costanza, on Seinfeld and that he was actor Ben Stiller’s dad. Ben is married to an actress named Christine Taylor, and at that time they hadn’t been married long.
When they started running through scenes with the stand-ins, we had a woman very physically similar to Leah Remini sitting at our conference table. She would have been Leah’s regular stand-in for the show, so it’s a pretty nice gig if you want to be an actor but don’t have anything pending. It pays the bills and gets you some education, networking and exposure in the industry.
When they were blocking out scenes that had Jerry’s character, ‘Arthur,’ interacting at home, I noticed that his stand-in was nothing like him. She was a pretty blonde who was somewhere in the neighborhood of 25-30 years old.
I happened to be sitting in the stands where the live audience would be sitting once they started shooting in a few hours, and along with several other extras we were having a conversation with the production assistant (PA) who was in charge of wrangling us. On every shoot everywhere, there is ALWAYS a PA who is in charge of the extras.
I asked this guy why Mr. Stiller’s stand-in was a pretty blonde instead of a ‘type’ like him. This was the guy’s answer…
“Well, we had his type until recently but the guy got an acting gig and left. The woman you’re watching is an old friend of Jerry’s daughter-in-law, Christine Taylor. She came to town to pursue a career and stayed with Ben and Christine for a while, which is how she met Jerry. He visited one day, found out she’d just arrived in LA and needed a job, and so he got her hired despite the fact that she doesn’t resemble him in the least. He’s like that, always trying to help someone out.”
I didn’t know much about Jerry Stiller until reading up on him posthumously today, but I sure did like that whole ‘helping her out’ thing back then. If anything, that’s a nice legacy to leave behind. “He was always trying to help someone out.”
And now, a weird little Hollywood footnote: Back then I had two jobs; I worked as an extra on film and TV shoots, and as a security officer at the Hollywood and Highland entertainment and retail complex, that had just opened in 2002.
One evening at Hollywood and Highland, about two months after the “King Of Queens” shoot described above, I was a security guy at a big Hollywood party on the 5th level. Quite a few celebrities were in attendance including Kevin James, who played ‘Doug’ on King Of Queens.
Since I was at the inside of the party, working the floor, I wasn’t in a security uniform, I was wearing a suit and had an earpiece with a sleeve mic. I wandered the floor and didn’t converse with anyone unless they asked me a question or something, since I wasn’t there as a guest, but as staff.
Kevin James started to walk past me at one point but stopped short, looked me over for a second, then said, “Dude, you look familiar.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Nice to see you again, I was an attorney at a deposition scene with ‘Carrie’ on King Of Queens a couple of months ago.”
His reply? “Oh, cool man… hey which way to the restrooms?”