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Jerry Stiller on Surviving the Great Depression

In Tuesday’s debate, Barack Obama called this recession “the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.” True or false? True, according to actual Child of the Depression Jerry Stiller, whom we met at the Project A.L.S. benefit gala at the Waldorf=Astoria the night of the debate. “I came up through the Depression,” he says. “My parents had three kids. My father was an unemployed cab driver. There was no money. No money. I’m talking about real misery at this time. It brought out the worst in families — fights because the money controlled what people thought of themselves. If the father didn’t earn a dollar, the family went to pieces. That I remember being very much a part of my life and I don’t want to see it happen again.”

But Stiller thinks that this one could be worse. “There are more people around,” he says, “and they can point directly to something. When somebody says, ‘I signed a mortgage I didn’t understand,’ somebody hoodwinked them! We didn’t know what we were hit with in 1932. We were just hit with a blackjack. We didn’t know how, why, where. Now we can point the fingers, you see. Blame will cause more problems. We can’t blame. We have to find one person who’s going to make us stand up and think we can lick this thing and bring us back to normality.”

According to Stiller, those who lived through the crisis that hit the city in the seventies don’t know what’s coming to them. “[19]75 was nothing compared to what we’re going into right now!” says Stiller. “No doubt about it.” Of course, times were different then in the Stiller household. “It didn’t affect me because I didn’t make much at the time,” he said. “There was nothing to save and there wasn’t anything to lose. I was schlepping around with [wife] Anne [Meara] doing club dates, playing the Village Vanguard. Everything we made, we used up — to pay the rent, travel to here and there, maybe pay off your agency, and hoping for the future. We didn’t have any time to think about money.” Now, says Stiller, he’s making more money, but he’s turned recession-proof in his old age. “I’ve been on low maintenance for the last couple of years,” he says. “I mean, I don’t eat too much food anymore. I lost a few pounds. I don’t have any great desires. I’m not a person who eats out three times a day at Delmonico’s or the Four Seasons. I’m still on a knish or a pizza a day. That’s a big meal for me. So I think I’ll get away with it.”

Regardless, Stiller thinks that there’s no better way to get the elderly vote behind Barack Obama than to appeal to their memories of the bad old days. “It’s almost at the point where when [Franklin D.] Roosevelt came into the picture, when a new face was needed to start this country back on track,” he says. “The only thing I can tell you right now is that if you loved Roosevelt, you will love Obama.”

Jerry Stiller on Surviving the Great Depression