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21 questions

Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara Are Addicted to Swimming and Computers

Name: Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara
Age: 83 and 81
Neighborhood: Upper West Side
Occupation: "Hit and Miss"; Actors and Writers. They recently appeared at the Museum of the Moving Image and Comedy Hall of Fame for a discussion of their careers, and you can catch them weekly in their web series, Stiller and Meara: A Show About Everything.


Who's your favorite New Yorker, living or dead, real or fictional?
Stiller: Mine was Fiorello LaGuardia, who was before your time. He was called the "little flower." He made house visits and was truly a mayor in the sense of the word that he talked to people. He read the funnies on Sundays on the radio.
Meara: Mine was Mayor [John] Lindsay. He loved the theater and the theater community.
Stiller: He was the tallest mayor we ever had, and the most handsome, and he was able to bring the Democrats and Republicans together. I don’t think he was awarded the credit.


What's the best meal you've eaten in New York?
Stiller: We used to go to Patsy’s and we still do. And egg foo yung at Shun Lee.
Meara: No, you like egg foo yung. I don’t care for it.
Stiller: Spaghetti Aglio Oliio at Patsy’s.
Meara: I like the manicotti there, and clams oreginata.
Stiller: They were there right around the corner when we came out of The Ed Sullivan Show. We used to celebrate at nine o’clock on Sundays.
Meara: That’s right, it was the first restaurant we could afford to go to that was a white tablecloth restaurant.

In one sentence, what do you actually do all day in your job?
Meara: I yell at Jerry, obviously.
Stiller: I write down what she says, because it’s very funny, usually.

What was your first job in New York?
Meara: It was at a place called the Actor’s Exchange. It was before there were answering machines and telephones, and we took messages for actors. I would answer the phones.
Stiller: The first place I made any money that seemed meaningful was at the Phoenix Theater on Second Avenue and Twelfth Street in the 1950s and that was when T. Edward Hambleton and Norrie Houghton brought in Hollywood actors to do classics. I played one of the Volscian servants in Coriolanus with Jack Klugman.
Meara: He was very good, it was when we were just married.

What's the last thing you saw on Broadway?
Meara: We’re going to see Priscilla tomorrow. But what did we see before Priscilla?
Stiller: The one I saw was La Cage Aux Folles with Kelsey Grammar and Douglas Hodge. It was the most funny performance, and I didn’t want it to end. It made me feel like if in my life I had been gay.
Meara: Who did you go with? I didn’t go with you.
Stiller: I went with myself.
Meara: I went with my daughter to Barrow Street to see Mistakes Were Made, with Michael Shannon. He was brilliant. It was practically a one-man show.

Do you give money to panhandlers?
Meara: Of course.
Stiller: Yes, I do it. And there’s always the question “Why would you do it?” I know exactly what it is to be flat broke. I remember having no car fare to get back from an audition that I had downtown on the Lower East Side and I went up to a guy in the newsstand and I asked him, “Can you give me a nickel to get on the subway,” and he said to me, “Get away from me, you bum.” And it’s never left me.

What's your drink?
Meara: I don’t drink liquor but I do like chocolate ice cream soda.
Stiller: I’m still looking for Auster’s egg cream. Stanley Auster's uncle invented the egg cream, which is chocolate, club soda, and a secret ingredient, and the secret ingredient creates a taste in your mouth that makes you want another and another and another. Anyway, Stanley’s uncle invented this, and I found out long after the egg cream went away that the secret ingredient was a spot of vanilla mixed in with the chocolate syrup.

How often do you prepare your own meals?
Meara: Never, we send out. I do make scrambled eggs with onions, but I did that stuff for years. I don’t do it any more.
Stiller: I think we both agree on that. But I have a cooking fetish. It’s at breakfast usually, and I make four-minute coddled eggs and I put them in a little English bowl and chop it up with some butter and some toast and I mix it up and I pretend I’m in London.

What's your favorite medication?
Stiller: I love swimming.
Meara: Jerry’s good at that.
Stiller: I swim every day. When I’m in the water I try to, not do laps, but I allow myself to be aware that I’m in the water and allow the feeling of being in the water at that moment, rather than thinking, “I’ve got to get out of here an do my laps.” I have a theory about it, I always feel like when I’m in the water, I’m back in the womb.
Meara: I love documentaries and the computer. I am a little addicted to the computer, and that relaxes me. I find information, I shop, and I look up people I worked with to find out if they’re dead or alive.

What's hanging above your sofa?
Meara: Hanging above our sofa is actually a picture of Jerry and me. It’s a program from our 50th wedding anniversary seven years ago. It’s framed, a caricature of Jerry and me.
Stiller: Ben had a party for us at the boat basin …
Meara: Ben and Christine, and Amy.
Stiller: Ben and Christine and Amy had a celebration for us at the boat basin at Central Park. They said they were just going to have hamburgers but all of a sudden every member of the family and every friend arrived, and we were just overwhelmed by it. On the other wall is the picture of a painting that I bought for 75 bucks in the sixties.
Meara: At a block party. We have two couches, that’s what he’s talking about.
Stiller: This is a picture of the building across the street on our street. And it’s just what it is: simple, and forever.

How much is too much to spend on a haircut?
Stiller: If you have a bad haircut, you’ve spent too much. But if you have a good haircut — and I have a great guy that does my hair now, Reuben — it’s not just a haircut. We talk, we chat, and I’m able to free-associate with him about my life. And when he’s done I look at myself and he says I look ten years younger. I look like a German field general, I don’t know.
Meara: He looks good, he does good work. I get my hair cut as well as touched up, from Reuben as well. It’s about $150.
Stiller: I pay much less.

When's bedtime?
Meara: Oh, since I got old I want to tell you, I go to bed like at 9:30 and I wake up at 5 a.m.
Stiller: I can’t go to bed, it’s very tough, and I’m usually watching Lawrence O’Donnell, Rachel Maddow …
Meara: I love all of them, but I can’t watch those talking heads.
Stiller: … Jon Stewart …
Meara: Oh, The Daily Show, we love that.
Stiller: And I put on Conan. What I do is I jump around between commercials.
Meara: Our niece does Conan. She’s the technical director. Beth.
Stiller: I also watch sports on Channel 1 at 11:35.
Meara: Oh, I don’t watch that. He loves basketball.
Stiller: I really love basketball. I’ve recently come back to the Knicks, but I was off because of that disaster trip they were on for so many years. It depressed me. But I’m back with Carmelo, and I love this guy Fields, who is a great rebounder. There’s a new spirit to the team, and I went to a game the other night for the first time in eight years, and I had more fun that I could imagine.

Which do you prefer, the old Times Square or the new Times Square?
Meara: I think it has to be a happy medium. I remember when Joe Papp was alive, we did a lot of shows for Joe: Public Theater, Shakespeare in Central Park — and Joe was also against the Disneyfication of 42nd Street and Times Square. It’s just a little too bland. You know, at least you knew where the porn stores were.
Stiller: What I liked about the old Times Square was that when we finished a show at eleven o'clock they used to have movies. Because we were so wound up, we couldn’t go to sleep. And you’d sit there and in the balcony were all these actors in New York City watching these movies, like Jerry Orbach. It was like a family.

What do you think of Donald Trump?
Meara: I don’t like him. I think he’s a greedy man.
Stiller: I’m not going to say that at all. He hired us twice to play Trumps when we were flat on our back. He was flat on his back too. In order to get paid we had to go to Phil Ruzutto’s money store to pick up our salary …
Meara: I don’t like that he closed off our exit on 72nd Street and West Side Highway.
Stiller: But I was sitting next to him at a memorial and I got to talking with him, and he talked like a real guy … [To Meara] What are you looking like that for?
Meara: Well, you chickened out.
Stiller: No, no, no, I like him. I like him because I know just what he is: a showman. He’s a bit of a guy that wants to be in show business. I don’t mind his hair; I think it’s all part of the show. But then the other thing he said to me once, which I’ll never forget, he said, “I like your son.” For that I love him.

What do you hate most about living in New York?
Meara: I think for the average person it’s very expensive. We’re lucky enough to live in an apartment that’s paid for.
Stiller: We’ve been in our apartment since the day Ben was born. We were in Washington Heights, and as they say we needed “a bigger place and a better address,” as they say, because we were doing Ed Sullivan, and if you lived in Washington Heights you were schlepping. But if you lived on Riverside Drive you had an address, as they said. And when they negotiated your salaries you were in a better position. We got a deal, when we moved in here we were paying $220 a month and today this apartment is a co-op and the price is out of range of any normal person.

Who is your mortal enemy?
Meara: He’ll never tell you because he has this desperate need to be liked.
Stiller: Well, there’s a word for digging up the past, it’s called retraumatization. And most of my life I’ve been able to keep retraumatization out — because there’s always someone who screwed you — but somehow or another — and this is the weirdest thing — for some reason when you’re doing too good, you remember some guy, some agent, or somebody …
Meara: That’s you. You remember those people. He holds a grudge.
Stiller: I do not. I find myself having to turn off that thing in my head. Retraumatization. It will kill you.
Meara: I don’t like that guy in Wisconsin, that governor. He’s terrible.

When's the last time you drove a car?
Meara: Jerry’s the driver, I never learned.
Stiller: I don’t drive anymore either. I also love riding a bike. I used to ride my bike to the theater to get my brain warmed up.

How has the Wall Street crash affected you?
Stiller: I’m very thankful that we never got in with Bernie Madoff because it’s such a con game. If somebody said, "Hey, you could get 20 percent back on your investment," we would have jumped in.
Meara: I notice a lot more stores are closed. And people are out of jobs.
Stiller: It’s really unfair when you think that the middle class gets killed. And people are thrown out on the streets because they can’t pay their mortgages. And there’s a feeling that if you close your eyes it’s not happening. And it’s not good for the rest of us; you don’t want to walk out on the street and see the guy with the cup in his hand. But there’s so many of these guys, the guy that opens the door at the bagel shop, and you have to give him something. I had one incident where a woman offered me sexual favors. An older woman! You don’t make up things like this.
Meara: You do. You’re living in a dream world.

Times, Post, or Daily News?
Meara: I go to the computer or the New York Times. I never check out the Post, I don’t read that at all.
Stiller: We get the Times every morning, and I like to read the dailies. I like the Daily News because the print is bigger.

Where do you go to be alone?
Stiller: The other room.
Meara: He goes to swim at the JCC. Where do you go to be alone, Jerr?
Stiller: I’m never alone.
Meara: He doesn’t like to be alone.
Stiller: I don’t like to be alone. I’m never alone. But I walk, I play music in my headphones.
Meara: And you write.
Stiller: I write. It’s kind of like, what is being alone? You want to be alone but you don’t want to be alone — you’re caught up in two of these things. Without Anne being there, talking to me in some way, I would feel very lonely.

What makes someone a New Yorker?
Meara: I always feel it’s when people are very direct. Other places, rural areas, other parts of the country people smile and say, “Have a nice day,” while sticking a shiv in your ribs. In New York they say, “Get the hell out of my way, will ya please?”

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Photo: Dario Cantatore/Getty Images