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.
Jerry Stiller is a very sharp guy! I love when he asks: “Why do you ask that question?”
Jerry Stiller is a national treasure. Thanks for this.
He really is! He should be getting one of those Kennedy Center Honors awards!
I remember when they still lived in the Heights and I remember Amy with her curly red hair playing in the playground on Riverside Drive on 163rd Street. They were always friendly. Real “Nu Yawkers.”
Jerry must like Artie’s too. Only two blocks away…….and four blocks from Zabar’s. I’m going down to Zabar’s now. I hope I run into Jerry…..What a country !!
Artie’s?? that place is a laughing stock.
Pathetic excuse for a NY deli.
Better off getting a sandwich in a bodega.
So where is the best deli?? Artie’s has amazing chicken soup…but I’m open to exploring!
Arties used to be great at first, even though it was kind of a fake, old style deli. But eventually the quality just started to go down. And they don’t sell the whole salamis anymore.
Other good places
Bens on 38th
mmmm, now that I’m thinking about it, I’m gonna go to mendys right now!
2nd ave deli
“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.”
Having lived on 76th and Riverside I can tell you from experience that you really don’t have to shtupp the janitors. Tipping is generally preferable.
Great write-up! Really enjoyed it.
Terrific write up and Jerry looks great. I see him often having pizza in a totally nondescript place on b’way in the 80s…but now I will look for him when I go to Candle Cafe.
So many wonderful UWSers….can’t wait to read more. Maybe Barbara Cook or Itzhak Perlman next? How about Tim Gunn…even though he is kind of new to the ‘hood. Or maybe ask Alec Baldwin why he left the neighborhood.
And how about Renee Fleming?
Really good interview. Thank you.
That was very good! Let me share this. I have to tell you that I recently finished a novel “Sunrise Across America” where an TV network morning anchorman is framed for murder and finds a hiding place in Central Park. So, he disguises himself and hangs out the West Side neighborhood across from his hideout. He has a wild and crazy time meeting wonderful everyday people he never knew. They are like the people you mentioned in your write up. Thanks, Jim Stokes
Jerry Stiller – we love you!!
Just lovely – Mr. Stiller bought one of my photograph/paintings a few years ago. Was very thrilled
It’s been a while but I often saw him at the JCC on Amsterdam @76th. Just seeing him would make me smile because I would think of him and his brilliant interpretation of Frank Constanza.
We used to see him there too. Would sometimes share a swim lane. Such a thrill!
Makes us all proud that the UWS is our neighborhood. He’s right when he distinguishes between the UWS and Park Ave. Here is where the real people live!
Minor point: Jerry’s family name on “Seinfeld” is Costanza (not Constanza).
Wonderful interview, thank WSR and Mr. Stiller. I remember seeing all four family members walking on Broadway when Amy and Ben were teenagers (perhaps). Then shared IRT-1 uptown local with Anne Meara; she taught me a great life lesson unknowingly…while others in train looked away from a person begging for money, Anne greeted the person, was generously charitable and the sole kind person to respond. Taught me to try to be as kind to those in need, even on the train.
Stiller and Meara were a pair of mensches, with Stiller keeping up the tradition for Meara, who has moved on to greener pastures. Never used their fame and fortune to look down on other people, but instead to help them out, make them feel a part of things, make them feel better about being alive. Rare and wonderful people who felt they owed the world something, not the other way around.
So true, beautiful people.
I’ve seen Jerry Stiller around the hood many times. A few years ago he walked into the JCC. He posed for photos and signed autographs for everyone.
He’s not only funny but he’s a really nice guy.
In the 60s Stiller and Meara did a set of hysterical radio commercials for Blue Nun Wine
Jerry, if you like stuffed cabbage, it is available from COSTCO in package of 4. Not labeled hulipshkas but not as good as my mothers. This from an UES guy who agrees with you on the UWS where I love to visit my family (grandchildren) Kasey and Samantha.
A real New Yorker who understands what the Upper West Side really is/was. Telling it like it is and he isn’t a yuppie. I miss the block parties, today they would be considered a quality of life blight and the yuppies would have a heart attack. We love Jerry Stiller
I’m not sure about Jerry’s use of “shtup” and “stultify.” I think what he means is “bribe” and “stuffy.” Or maybe the reporter misheard.
He meant SHTUPP. I’ve heard the term since childhood. It’s always meant bribe. For example…You want something fixed in your apartment, you shtupp the super if it’s not part of his job. Otherwise it’s a tip.
The phrase “to shtupp” have changed and morphed, as everything does. If taken literally as described in the wonderful book “The Joys of Yiddish” by Leo Rosten, it could mean both literally (to screw, as in sex) or it could mean to tip, to schmooz, to pay-off — as in: to slip to super/janiter money (under-the-table)
Many years ago after a quick marriage and divorce I chose to let “him” have my apartment near CPW but I wanted to stay on the block, so I “tipped” a super at the building I wanted to live in to have my name move up the “wait list” to number one. I moved a week later. That’s how it used to be done. I’m guessing in some places, it still is!
It mean to “push”. It has different connotations and usages, not only the colloquial Yinglish one that is causing consternation.
It can be used, as Mr. Stiller does here, to mean to “push money” upon someone who is not waiting for or expecting it. He walked around, walked up to a janitor and put money into the janitor’s hand — and *then* explained why.
All of that, in one word.
To some people Shtupp means to give money to, in a sort of secretive way. It’s not ONLY the meaning all you miscreants are thinking 😉
Jerry is a great guy and a wonderful neighbor. Great piece, thanks!
I grew up watching Stiller and Meara on Ed Sullivan and for 30 years I’ve lived near them. Once I was with them in Broadway Farm. They were bickering, just like on TV. It was great. Pat Cooper lives on the UWS, too. He is also hilarious. I ran into him at DiPalo’s on Grand Street last year. We spent an hour talking and I was hysterical most of the time. They don’t make guys like them anymore. Lou DiPalo gave me a copy of Pat’s biography on my way out. 5 people have read it so far. Laughter is food for the soul. I love living amongst the talented, creative, funny, and thoughtful people on the UWS. I feel so lucky.
Reading this interview and hearing in my head that quintessential Jewish New Yorker voice of his fills me with joy that this most beautiful neighborhood on the planet is my home. Thank you, West Side Rag!
Like Dr. Egglehoffer in The Great Gatsby, a pair of all-seeing eyes. Just idle speculation, but I suspect that Jerry Stiller was born stoned. Not his doing, but THC must pump through his bloodstream by the gallon.
Or maybe, just maybe, it’s possible for a human to be funny, even clever, without any need for chemical inebriation.
Ask a grown-up; they’ll tell you.
I have seen him many times around the UWS, including at Zabars! My personal story reads almost like a Seinfeld episode — I went to the bathroom at the Sony Loews theatre on 67th after a movie and lo and behold the only open urinal was next to the one being used by Jerry Stiller. I couldn’t help but look over to watch him, but, obviously wouldn’t look down. And I wanted to say something, being a huge fan. I was conflicted. He noticed me and couldn’t help but notice that I wanted to interact with him (as a celebrity) but needed to follow bathroom protocol. He then said, “you know, I’d shake your hand, but I am guessing you wouldnt exactly like it” and laughed.
You captured so much of who Jerry Stiller is! And what the West Side is. Your interview questions are wonderful casual but prompting. I can’t wait to read the next one!
I love this man and his love for the community of the UWS. It’s interesting in light of the posts a few weeks ago about raising kids in the city (the article about the dad and the older man who got hurt arguing). Kids and families have always lived here – even in the “good old days.” It is NOT “a playground for adults.” Let’s try and me more of a patient community to one another.
I live in Hawaii now but I will always be a New Yorker born and raised on the upper west side. Great article.
Loved this article–
thanks for this read
I live around the corner from the Candle Cafe and often see Jerry Stiller and his son Ben sitting outside in the summer on the cafe bench. The two look a lot alike. Always nice to see father and son spending time together.
Thanks for a great article and looking forward to the next interview.
Love it! Love him. Love his work.
Good idea. I enjoy hearing about others who live on the Upper West Side.
Great interview! I liked how he said that the neighborhood hasn’t changed. It is a refreshing positive note.
Kudos to Eileen for doing this interview. Never met this treasure of a man, but couldn’t help loving his and his wife’s work.
Can’t wait for the next Person of UWS!
I had the great good luck and pleasure to be seated next to Mr. Stiller a few years ago at a fundraiser in a private home on the UWS. We were there early and had time to kill. He struck up a conversation with me, expressing sincere interest in what I said, then recounting many fascinating stories of his early life in the theater. Lovely interview: thanks for sharing.
With all due respect, Schtupp generally means to have Sex ( from the word to poke). I believe the word we are searching for here is Schmeichel. To tip or give money ( on the side) to thak someone for work done or pay it forward and get special treatment.
One warm afternoon about 10 years ago I was walking my lazy, plodding basset hound up Amsterdam Ave when I heard this unmistakable voice bellow ‘My God! He moves slower than I do!’
Of course, I didn’t have to even turn around to know that voice belonged to Jerry Stiller.
So nice to see he’s still with us at age 88
Love Westsiders like Jerry and all those who have put down roots in thd ‘hood. The late great Eli Wallach was another; he lived just around the corner, which made me feel special. I think all the creative folks on the UWS and its diversity make our neighborhood authenic NYC and its residents real NewYorkers. Now if we can just keep some affordable housing and stop the SRO-AirBnb scourge. . .
When I lived in NYC, I lived on the west side…near Columbus Circle. It was so alive and it was easy to make friends. I am so glad Jerry Stiller is there, especially after the great loss of his wife. He undoubtedly takes great comfort in friendships and the liveliness of the west side.
Great fun, I love the UWS and our residents. I’ve seen Jerry around forever and have always been a fan. I liked getting a feel of his life here. This is a great idea for the column, who’s next?
Back in the 1990s, as my mom and I were crossing Broadway and 72nd Street we noticed Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller sitting in the back seat of a cab waiting at the red light. We waved and Anne Meara enthusiastically waved back at us wearing a beautiful smile. That was a big thrill. I never missed them when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.
This new series of interviews is terrific and a great addition to the West Side Rag.
I love this guy! And what he says about the Upper West Side and the people here is true. I’ve lived on the East Side and in Chelsea and only here is there that sense of neighborhood, of community, of being connected to warm, kind human beings.
Love this piece. We live across the street from them. Once, years ago, my family and I got into a cab that Anne Meara had just got out of. I’ve seen and worked with lots of celebrities, but that sighting was one of the most fun because it felt so intimate. Right here next to home.
I think frank langella lives in UWS. get him! thanks..
this was awesome.
Jerry, I aspire to be an Upper West Sider like you. Have been in the neighborhood for just 16 years, but I plan to live the rest of my life here. It’s such a beautiful place to me.
I love this new column! Can’t wait to see who’s next!
We lived in Washington Heights 163rd. Babysat for a mutual friend who also was a prominent seamstress for them. The area at the time was run by Jewish Families & they were wonderful people. My Mother was very friendly with everyone and picked up a lot of Jewish traits that linger on until today. Great neighborhoods to live & raise a family during those time. Mr. Stiller made me homesick for NYC. Great memories!
Forgot. My Step Dad Clyde Barnes introduced me to their ” Is It Dirty Or Is It Clean” record which I loved as a teenager.
Meanings of “schmooz”: idle conversation, casual conversation.
You may have to schmooz before you can shtupp. Two very different activities.