Editor’s Note: Eileen Katz is putting together a new series for the West Side Rag called “Why the West Side?” She’s interviewing locals, particularly people in creative fields, to find out why they live on the Upper West Side. Her first interviewee is actor Jerry Stiller.
By Eileen Katz
Comedy icon Jerry Stiller rose to fame in the 60’s and 70’s as part of the comedy duo Stiller & Meara with his wife of 61 years, Anne Meara. After making numerous appearances on major prime time television programs ranging from “The Ed Sullivan Show” to ”The Love Boat” they received Emmy nominations, The American Comedy Award and were honored with a joint star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame. He received a second wave of success as George Costanza’s father, Frank, on “Seinfeld” and then went on to win audiences over playing Leah Remini’s father on the Kevin James hit sitcom “King of Queens”. His feature film catalog includes standout performances in titles like “Zoolander”, which he acted in along side his son Ben, and “Hairspray”. He and Anne raised children Amy (also an actor) and Ben on the Upper West Side, which he still calls home.
Why the West Side, Jerry?
Anne was very pregnant with Ben, we already had Amy, and we were looking for a bigger apartment. We had been living in Washington Heights on 160th St., which was very nice, but the Upper West Side was the place everybody wanted to be, especially if you were an artist or in the theater. To get down to the next level, this neighborhood here, the Upper West Side, it meant something which was very silly, but it was very real. It meant you had “an address”. This was ‘THE” place. That’s the words they used!
How did you find this apartment?
I started by shtupping all the janitors on Riverside Drive. I did this every time I saw a janitor who looked like he might come through for me. And the further down Riverside you went, the more you had to shtup. A week before Ben was born, I got a call from a real estate agent who said Dick Shawn (actor, comedian) just turned this apartment down, but he said you were looking for one, so get right over. This is how it was in the beginning. I had just enough money to put down one month’s rent and one month’s deposit because we were still struggling back then. Years later, when we had some success and some money coming in we decided we wanted a larger space. Our next-door neighbor back then, a very sweet lady, told us she was moving, which made it so easy! We just had to knock down a few walls and put in some bookcases!
What makes you stay?
No reason to leave!
How is it different from living in any other neighborhood?
We were comfortable here to the extent that we didn’t want to move anyplace else it seemed. We weren’t looking to go to Park Avenue for instance. Once people worked hard and made a good living then they wanted to move to Park Avenue. I had an uncle who lived on Park Avenue, Uncle Abe. So we went to his house, you see. An apartment on Park Avenue! It was very nice, but stultified. No friendliness, no warmth. I don’t want to put down Park Avenue or anything. It’s a good place to live and all that, but you didn’t have the camaraderie that you had here. We used to have block parties here. That was a big thing. Right here on 84th Street. The fireman ran the block parties. They brought the fire engines down and parked them on the street, you know, and the kids would climb all over them and the ladders. The camaraderie was incredible. There was no air between us, I’ll use that expression. It was so wonderful here that you didn’t want to leave. Real people live on the west side.
What are some of your favorite restaurants?
We used to love Teachers and Marvin’s Gardens up here in the 80’s. Marvin was a kind of eclectic hip guy who loved the west side. He was kind of like an actor, writer, painter. He was very friendly with Anne and I. Shun Lee, down a little further, I love their egg foo young. And also their egg rolls. I like the Candle Café too. Zabar’s, they are a grocery store selling smoked fish, latkes, hulupskish, and you can come off the street and go in to their café. There is always a line that went to the counter and around, it’s always crowded but fast and you can get a cup of coffee and a piece of cake or holishkes.
A Jewish dish. It’s stuffed cabbage! My father always loved it so I do too! You can stay there and read the paper and develop relationships with people coming in. Most of them are westsiders who mostly are writers or into culture. They would say hello, ask how my wife was, how the kids were, very respectful. You feel at home.
Did that feeling change after “Seinfeld”?
They knew me for the first time. They knew everything about the show and after a while I think the character of my son, George, played by Jason Alexander, kind of became real to them! They would ask how he was. But people up here were always friendly and respectful but not “into your bones” if you know what I mean. (At right, Frank tries to talk some sense into his wayward son George.)
Speaking of Zabar’s, if you were stuck on a desert island and could only have one thing from Zabar’s what would it be?
Why do you ask that question?
It’s a very interesting question, but if you’re stuck on a desert island you’re not going to think of Zabar’s!
Alright, the Nova! Dave always took care of me on line. It was always a long line, but he would always take me out of line, which made other people very angry cause I was jumping the line. I’d say “It’s not my fault! He’s making me jump!” He was the man. The big guy. At one point I wasn’t sure if I should tip him, but he wouldn’t take the money! In real life you can bribe people, but not there. They decide if they want to bring you to the front of the line or not.
Here’s the “Boxers or Briefs” question: Riverside or Central Park?
Well, we’re closer to Riverside Park here. I love to go across the street and spend time there. They had a campaign at one point to save the trees here and add more. So they had pictures of me hugging the trees. I was a tree person! But I love Central Park too. You know when Joe Papp started Shakespeare in the Park, that’s when I became involved. They were doing “nontraditional” casting, which meant guys like me were never going to get the right parts! I did Shakespeare in Central Park despite Joe Papp! I worked with Colleen Dewhurst, Kevin Kline. At that time they were all starting out. All hopefuls, but they were very good.
Do you think the neighborhood has changed since you started living here?
No, not really. There used to be a crime program where their catchphrase was “only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” And that’s what this neighborhood feels like to me. The names might change but it still feels the same.