Remembering Anne Meara, Actress, Comedienne, and Half of Enduring Showbiz Duo

Obituaries   Remembering Anne Meara, Actress, Comedienne, and Half of Enduring Showbiz Duo
 
Anne Meara, the stage and film actress who forged a surprisingly durable career, both on her own and, more famously, as half of a comedy and acting duo with her longtime husband, Jerry Stiller, died May 23. She was 85.
Anne Meara
Anne Meara Photo by Joseph Marzullo

Like Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn and Eli Jackson and Anne Jackson before her, Ms. Meara was one of those show business figures whom the public rarely thought of without instantly also thinking of her husband/partner. Both born in Brooklyn, she and Mr. Stiller made for a modern-day "Abie’s Irish Rose" match--he was Jewish and she was Irish Catholic. They met in 1953 and married the following year. (She later converted to Judaism.)

Ms. Meara had studied as a serious actress at the Dramatic Workshop at the New School in Greenwich Village, and, by her own account, was disdainful of comics. In the 1950s, she had the beginnings of a decent stage career. She appeared in three plays with the Phoenix Theatre on Broadway in 1956 and 1957, as well as Off-Broadway at the New York Shakespeare Festival and in Ulysses in Nighttown opposite Zero Mostel.

But when she and Stiller began their career as a double act, it was as comedians--the suggestion of Stiller. They joined the famous improvisational group, The Compass Players, the Chicago precursor of The Second City. By the early '60s, they were playing New York nightclubs and being written up by the newspapers. Later in the decade, they became regulars on "The Ed Sullivan Show," increasing their fame.

Never glamor-pusses, they created comedy that was mainly about relationships--something audiences could relate to. The fact their they were married in real life (like precursors George Burns and Gracie Allen) gave their routines added impact. In 1963 they released an album "Presenting America’s New Comedy Sensation: Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara Live at the Hungry i."

As time went on, however, the couple began to fear that their marriage might dissolve if their kept working together, so by 1970 they split up the act. (They did, however, agree to make a series of memorably comic commercials for Blue Nun wine.) Thereafter, Ms. Meara began to embark on solo projects. She played Bunny Flingus, the ditzy, loose girlfriend would-be songwriter Artie Shaughnessy, in the original 1971 production of John Guare’s surreal comedy The House of Blue Leaves. On television, she had a recurring role on "Rhoda" and had her own short-lived series "Kate McShane," which got her an Emmy Award nomination. She also had a part in "Archie Bunker’s Place," the successor to "All in the Family." Film roles of this time included small parts in "The Out-of-Towners," "Lovers and Other Strangers" and "Irish Whiskey Rebellion." In most of her small and large screen roles she played a slightly careworn, seen-in-all character who, while looking at the world askance, possessed a good heart.

In 1988, she returned to Shakespeare at the Public Theatre, playing the Nurse in a production of Romeo and Juliet. The following year, she was back on Broadway as an interfering homeless woman in Richard Greenberg’s Yuppie comedy of manners, Eastern Standard. In 1993, she gave a solid supporting performance as a worn-out waterfront dame in O’Neill’s Anne Christie. It won her her only Tony nomination.

More television came in the ‘90s, with recurring roles on "Sex and the City" and "The King of Queens." Later film roles including "Kiss of Death," "The Daytrippers," "Reality Sucks," "Zoolander," "Night in the Museum" and "Sex in the City: The Movie." During her last two decades, she was rarely out of work.

"I'm a better actress now because I don't care about it that much," she said of her later career as a performer, talking to Playbill.com in 2000. "I care when I'm doing it, but don't have a need to break the bank at Monte Carlo. I enjoy the process. I don't have the need to ‘go over’ or make it."

In 1995, she scored a surprise success as a playwright with the comedy After-Play, about two aging couples facing the choices they've made in their marriages. It began at Manhattan Theatre Club, and then transferred to Theatre Four for a year-long commercial run. (She joined the cast at one point.) The play won her an Outer Critics Circle Award. In 2000, she came out with another play, Down the Garden Path, featuring her husband and daughter, Amy Stiller, but with less success.

Her husband, daughter Amy, and son Ben Stiller, the film actor, all survive her.

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