At 84 years old, Jerry Stiller is still going strong. Married for more than 56 years to fellow performer Anne Meara, he’s entered the twilight of a long and varied show business career with a uniquely entertaining sort of feisty grace. In his latest movie, the London-set comedy “Swinging With the Finkels,” he plays grandfather to Mandy Moore, whose marriage with architect Martin Freeman is suffering from a sort of sexual drift. ShockYa had the pleasure of talking with the elder Stiller recently, about swinging, longevity in relationships in general, the entertainment industry, and the possibility of dispensing any sexual advice to his son, Ben. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: The movie is about swinging, of course — it’s in the title. But just as a consumer of pop culture, it seems swinging was something that was discussed or more out there in the 1960s and ’70s (than today). Is that true? Do you remember friends or people you bumped into at parties talking about swinging, at least?
Jerry Stiller: Well, Anne and I were very reclusive. (laughs) Our connection was writing material and performing, so you would be surprised how out of touch we often were with the rest of the world. But we heard about it, of course, and there was the Masters and Johnson study that came out around that time, talking about sex and how much it was very scientific and dogmatic. The idea of swinging to me, though… I had no feelings about one way or another. But I knew you were supposed to hook up with another person, and whatever happens happens. I never thought I would be in a movie called “Swinging With the Finkels.”
ShockYa: When you have the type of role you have in this movie, you’re [almost] like a comedy paratrooper, with a role that’s very specific and also serving the plot. Is there any concern about trying to ascertain the tone of the film, or is it just an utter delight to come in and play around?
JS: Well, I knew it wasn’t something that I would have to apologize for because I read the script and liked it. The fellow who wrote it, Jonathan Newman, was in touch with me on the phone from London and explained to me what the story was about. And to me it was kind of like a modern-day version of whatever went on in all our lives, when things between couples start to lose their fire and they think about looking for something else. And in this movie there are two people — or it turns out to be four people when they get together — who are trying to stay within the legitimacy of their lives [and marriage vows] instead of going to do something like they’d be ashamed of, like this poor man who got caught in a hotel the other day with the maid who came in (Dominique Strauss-Kahn). They were trying to find some legitimacy for their feelings, which that there was no longer any excitement, and so how do you keep that within a frame of stability?
ShockYa: I haven’t had a chance to read your memoir –
JS: A lot of people haven’t!
ShockYa: We’re going to help get the word out there then. But I imagine it’s about both your professional and personal life with Anne, which has extended five decades-plus. That’s a heck of a long time. What do you do to keep a relationship fresh and invigorating that long?
JS: Well, Anne used to have a line about when we had sex, we did it with paper bags over our heads. (laughs) I don’t know whether metaphorically that says anything or not. I think the only way to explain it… is that when I married Anne I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world, and she still is. And my god, she was a goddess in some ways. But the part that really kept us going was the fact that we were both performance actors, we were both out of work and needed jobs. And when the opportunity came along to perform a comedy act – which came out of a thing called the Compass Players, which came out of Chicago with Mike Nichols and Elaine May and Shirley Berman among others; they needed replacements for those guys – then we discovered that we were funny on a stage together — the banter that took place between us, and taking suggestions from the audience for sketches and then performing them. When that gig ended we had a child, and then decided to go into the Village, Greenwich Village, and did another stage show. Six months later we were on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” I met George Burns once and I said to him that Artie Shore, the great band leader, had told me that he and (his wife) Gracie were the happiest married couple in the business and George Burns said to me, “That’s because we were married to the business.” And I understood immediately what he was talking about, because of course it applies to Anne and myself.
ShockYa: I think everyone cringes when they think of their parents as sexual beings or creatures, and I think every parent struggles with how to talk to their kids about sex. Did you have any comedically memorable moments discussing sex with either Ben or Amy?
JS: No. (laughs) I never mentioned it.
ShockYa: You hope to one day.
JS: (laughs) That’s the best way to put it, Brent. I really am ashamed to say it — but I’m also not ashamed to say it — that these things lead you on after a while, in terms of when they were living at home and when they were kids growing up. You didn’t see telltale signs of stuff going on, like what happens with George Costanza and his parents, a prophylactic wrapper on the bed, and you discover that he’s been using their bed to fellatio his wife. It was nothing like that. And I don’t know why, because… actually, I can give you one word that says it. I remember when I was a kid and we talked about body parts and they pointed down to my crotch area they said, “That’s the shame-ala.” It’s a Yiddish way of saying that’s the shame button, that’s dangerous.
ShockYa: “That which shall not be discussed,” right?
JS: That’s right! (laughs) So I passed that on (by not talking about it).
ShockYa: You seem like the poster child, still, for activity and personal and professional engagement. Is there ever a time when you would consider quote-unquote retiring?
JS: Well, in our business you’re retired until the phone rings again and they call you for a part. (laughs) I’ve retired any number of times in my life. But to want to consider that – to think that at one point somebody said we are not going to ever call you again for a role, that would kill me, it would take the life out of me. There are certain roles I’m not going to be able to play, I understand that. But at the same time, whenever somebody calls you for anything, at least in my book, I’m always excited and alive, and it makes me throb, so to speak. I love it still, and it happens on occasion.
Written by: Brent Simon