The power to steal a scene as a supporting actor is reserved for a select few. Jerry Stiller was one of them.
The world was saddened to hear his passing at the age of 92 last week. Stiller was beloved by audiences and co-stars alike as a man who lit up any room or scene that he entered.
To steal a term from The Rewatchables podcast, Stiller was the ultimate heat-check actor. He’s the personification of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams running the wildcat offense for the Dolphins. JR Smith hitting 11 3s in one game. Dion Waiters (the OG heat-check namesake) and Kyrie Irving going toe-to-toe in the NBA Rising Stars game.
Insert Stiller into any scene, no matter how morbid or morose, and he’ll provide instant offense. His phrasing and timing are second to none, and his roles of Frank Costanza on Seinfeld and Arthur Spooner on King of Queens portray those skills perfectly.
To honor him, we chose our favorite moments from those two particular roles — from his rants and tirades to the unique relationships he forges with his fellow characters.
To be among the best characters in Seinfeld is an honor amongst itself, but Frank Costanza might be the best. He was certainly the most efficient.
While all-time greats George, Kramer, Elaine, and Jerry may all have more classic moments, they also have their fair share of duds (Jerry especially). I can’t recall a scene or episode with Frank that flopped.
At first he was reportedly supposed to be a punching bag for his wife Estelle, played by the equally brilliant Estelle Harris, but he felt he could amp up his character by becoming just as shrewd and badgering as his spouse. Thankfully Larry David agreed.
Frank Costanza has become synonymous with Festivus, which has amassed a following that’d make L. Ron Hubbard jealous, as well as The Bro (or Manssiere, depending on where your allegiances lie). While those two scenes in particular are iconic, there are three others that have stuck with me equally that truly show the brilliance of Jerry Stiller.
“You Want a Piece of Me?”
This has to be Frank Costanza’s best moment on the show. At a police precinct to pick up his newly-minted bad boy of a son, Frank rightly assumes that George couldn’t have acted alone in his dastardly deeds.
Elaine agrees, only to insult Frank. If someone is going to berate his son, it’ll be him and him only. The two square off in one of the most memorable freeze frames from the show’s history. (Frank also has another, from “The Fatigues” episode.)
Additionally, the blooper reel to this scene is phenomenal:
“I Didn’t Take the Subway to New York to Sit at a Table Like That!”
One of the best parts of Seinfeld are all of the scenes where the characters are just shooting the shit. The conversations usually have nothing to do with the plot of the episode, rather they’re products of the twisted and ingenious minds of Seinfeld and David.
These non-sequiturs usually occur in Monk’s, as does this one. Frank and Estelle meet George for lunch, where they’re sat in a booth — a jackpot in the eyes of a man like Frank.
Not even a chilling draft could convince Frank to switch tables, and he stays resolute despite the constant nagging of Estelle. As absurd as the argument is, it’s somehow relatable too. If you had to describe Seinfeld in three words, “absurd yet relatable” wouldn’t be the worst you could do.
“That’s My Move!”
One of the best-ever episodes of Seinfeld wouldn’t be complete without a classic Frank moment. “The Fusilli Jerry” is memorable for a handful of reasons — the introduction of Puddy, ASSMAN vanity plates, and Jerry’s mysterious move — but perhaps none was more memorable than Frank confronting Kramer for stopping short.
Stiller’s reenactment of his patented move displays his gift for physical comedy (the motion of his off hand is as mystifying as it is hilarious), and his confrontation with Kramer calls back to their failed male brassiere business venture.
Stiller’s outstanding performance in Seinfeld called for him to take on a leading role. A mere four months after the final episode of the highly successful sitcom aired, King of Queens began its own nine-season run with Stiller at the helm in an argyle sweater. Although KoQ obviously isn’t comparable to Seinfeld in overall quality, its watchability endures to this day because of one man’s universal humor.
For those of you that may not know, the character of Arthur Spooner was an odd old man who inhabited the basement of his daughter (Carrie) and son-in-law (Doug). At the beginning of the series, Arthur’s senility was a little over dialed. Not to say that he wasn’t funny, but how many episodes of almost burning the house down can you really make? As the seasons progressed, the showrunners successfully merged the concept of the campy old guy with the energy, bravado, and wit of Jerry Stiller.
In my opinion, the show would not have lasted as long as it did without liberating Stiller’s genius in this way. His theatricality, along with his character’s ability to infuriate and subsequently endear, was the elevating force that placed King of Queens several tiers above your rank-and-file sitcom. He seemed to have created a unique chemistry with every character on the show, bringing out the very best of his co-stars.
Arthur and Doug
Arthur and Doug’s rapport bears no resemblance to the stereotypical man and father-in-law. Besides blatant remarks about his weight, it’s not in Arthur’s nature to constantly question Doug’s worthiness to be married to Carrie. He doesn’t obsess over Doug’s meager income and the fact that his beloved daughter has to work full time to support the family. But just because there is no tension that’s thinly veiled by civility and passive aggressiveness, that doesn’t mean the two are free of any conflict.
The troubles Arthur causes for Doug are of a more whimsical variety. Remember, this is the early ‘00s we’re talking about, a time in which sitcoms are unwilling and unable to portray major domestic strife realistically. The two truly are passionate enemies, just minus any trace of lasting bitterness. Doug’s patience with Arthur reverts to that of a saint each episode, only to be riled up over a cereal-related dispute the following morning. And while Arthur will say some pretty mean shit to Doug at times, he does it with such showmanship that it can hardly be interpreted as malicious.
There aren’t many instances where Doug comes to Arthur for fatherly advice. Any air of reverence for your wife’s dad kind of goes out the window after having to pay for his braces.
On those rare occasions, though, it’s pretty spectacular. Stiller shifts into grandfather mode, weaving empathetic if semi-irrelevant tales of yesteryear. The ketchup/catsup debate above says it all.
Arthur and Spence
Up until the fifth season or so, Arthur never really had a dependable friend. And if you’re familiar with Arthur, it kinda makes sense. Notwithstanding, the on-screen magic produced by Arthur was hermetically confined to Doug and Carrie’s house and was begging to enchant and/or bring destruction to the greater Queens area.
The latter half of the series sees A. Spooner take on the outside world a bit more. Arthur starts kicking it at the senior center, going on walks with a professional dog-walker, and hanging out with Spence Ulchin (played by Patton Oswalt), Doug’s diminutive friend. Spence is in his late-30’s and lives at home with his mother, Veronica, who happened to be Jerry Stiller’s actual wife. Spence, a subway worker (trains, not sandwiches), is too lacking in confidence to stick up for himself when Arthur jabs at him. Only a codependent punching bag like Spence could handle companionship with the quick-tongued Arthur.
The origin of Arthur and Spence’s relationship happens much earlier on in the show, and it makes me wonder why the writers didn’t pursue it from that moment onward. One of their first meetings sees Arther make Spence cry. Oh Arthur, so tackless….