You may know veteran comedian Jerry Stiller from his numerous TV and movie appearances (including a regular guest spot on Seinfeld), as half of a comedy team (with wife Anne Meara), or even just as actor-director Ben Stiller's dad. But he has recently taken on a new role as anecdotal historian of his old neighborhood, the Lower East Side of New York.
Designed as a self-guided audio tour for people with cell phones, the project developed by Candide Media immediately caught the attention of BusinessWeek Telecom Editor Steve Rosenbush. Stiller, 76, agreed to discuss the project, but once the interview began, he seemed to want to discuss anything but telecom. Not that there's anything wrong with that!
Thoughtful and reflective, Stiller spoke for 45 minutes about why the Lower East Side of his youth was an engine of social and economic advancement for so many people like himself. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: You're a busy guy. Why did you agree to work on a small project like the Cell Phone Walking Tour of the Lower East Side?
A: I was just listening to the tour now for the first time. I was amazed, I could hear myself going back to those places on the stops of the tour. I could pick up the feel of the place without being there. Of course, I'm hopeful it will excite people to come down there before it becomes something different.
Some of the best people who came into this country came through the Lower East Side. I'm glad I was part of it. I lived in Williamsburg and in East New York in Brooklyn. By the time I was five years old, we were moving down the economic ladder.
I was 12 years old when I moved to the Lower East Side. We lived at 131 Goerck Street, later Baruch Place, a railroad flat that had a bathroom in the hall which served more than one family. Then we moved to a housing project called the Vladeck Houses. I went to Seward Park High School.
I joined the Boys Brotherhood Republic, a self-governing settlement house whose motto was "Where Boys Rule." It really became my lifeline. The BBR started when some kids in the neighborhood were caught playing dice on the street and were arrested. They were going to be shipped off to reform school when a social worker from Chicago named Harry Slonaker, who had seen what happened, pleaded with the judge. "Give them to me," he said.
He rented a store on East 3rd Street, called it City Hall, and put them in charge. Later, the Colgate people who owned a tenement on East Third Street donated the property for a camp in Pompton Lakes, N.J., and Camp Colgate was created. With no electricity, we were expected to run it ourselves.
The BBR grew, thanks to two men in particular: George Ougourlian and Ralph Hittman. We learned about self-government. At 14, I ran for councilman. Bernie Nussbaum was once elected Mayor. He later served as White House counsel under President Clinton.
BBR really helped you find something within yourself. It was a place where we found a connection with each other. We were children of immigrants: Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish, Chinese, black, and Hispanic. There was no ethnic divide. It was so beautifully connected. There was no prejudice or bigotry.
My home was not a happy home, so to speak. There was lots of fighting because there was no money and no jobs. It didn't have that wonderful Jewishness that Sam Levinson wrote about. My mother never knew there was a worldwide Depression. My father slept through it like Rip Van Winkle until he drove a bus for 20 years.
We experienced some pretty crazy things. It made kids like myself want to get out and be somebody. My father grew up on Stanton Street, the oldest of 10 children. He wanted to get me a job as a bus driver. I said no, I want to be an actor. He said "At least be a stagehand. At least you will have work." But I still went for it.
Q: How did your career start? What happened next?
A: Let me skip a few years. David Shepherd created the Compass Players, the first Improv group, pre-Second City. Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Mark Gordon, Barbara Gordon, Tom Aldridge, and Shelly Berman created a blueprint for us all. They needed a replacement for a backers' audition. In the wings, I heard Mike and Elaine do a sketch called "Pirandello" that was absolutely incredible.
I worked in a sketch with Mike Nichols. I said, "What are my lines, Mike?" He said, "It's improv, there are no lines, you make it up." I went onstage, and there was no feeling of time passing for 45 minutes. There were just laughs, laughs, laughs.
That night was the inspiration to work with Anne [Meara] as an act. David Shepherd took Anne, myself, Nancy Ponder, and Alan Arkin to St. Louis for 10 weeks. We were called the Compass Players because by taking suggestions from the audience, we created our own material. Anne became the centerpiece of the quartet.
Anyway, I'm back to my early days, which started everything. But I left out the Henry Street Playhouse, where Esther Lane gave me the impetus to try the stage.
You feel lucky to be working as an actor. There are no help-wanted signs in restaurants saying "Actors wanted." That is the nature of the business, to always try to keep working. It's only when I look at our kids in the business I realize, my God, we survived so many years. The sweet pain of creativity. It's a great line.
I think the real name of the game is to keep doing it. You do follow a dream. You forget about the comfort to do something you love.
It's an interesting world. I reached a position in my life, and I thought everything was going to be the end. But every day is another adventure. You keep going, you never know what's next. And I was able to learn more about myself being an actor than I did about acting. And that's what I bring into each show.
And this neighborhood gave me so much. And it's still inside me. It gave me what I needed to go where I am.