Parental Units: The Perverse Charm of Stunt Casting

Meet the Fockers opened over Christmas, earning $68.5 million in its first five days, thanks in large part to the publicity-grabbing casting of Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand as Ben Stiller’s parents. But wait: Doesn’t Ben Stiller already have celebrity parents? Yes, he does—several pairs, in fact. There are, of course, his real-life parents, the comedian team of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara. And in 1996’s Flirting With Disaster, Stiller’s character was sired by hippies Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda and raised by uptight adoptive parents: Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal.

This kind of stunt casting—in which a character’s parents turn out to be a pair of famous actors—has recently become a favorite ploy for both sitcoms and the comedy movies that mimic them. Roles that once fell to stalwart character actors like Paul Dooley (Helen Hunt’s original dad on Mad About You—a part eventually recast with Carroll O’Connor) are now reserved almost exclusively for the likes of Sydney Pollack and Debbie Reynolds (Will’s dad and Grace’s mom on Will & Grace). Friends alone featured a parade of parental cameos: Elliott Gould as Ross and Monica’s dad; Marlo Thomas as Rachel’s mom; Morgan Fairchild and Kathleen Turner as Chandler’s mom and transsexual dad; and Teri Garr riffing on her own ditzy shtick as Phoebe’s mom, Phoebe Sr.

But other than an easy jolt of “Look, it’s Marlo Thomas” excitement for the audience, what’s the point of casting a famous face? “The audience brings a series of associations,” said Richard Hicks, the president of the Casting Society of America. “Whatever you thought of their past roles will reverberate in the role they’re doing now. Plus, there’s a great number of stars in their fifties and sixties who are available for work.”

Here, then, is the beauty of the stunt-casted parent: the role serves simul-taneously as an homage to an (often underemployed) legend and a winking in-joke with the audience. (Marion Ross, the Ur-mother from Happy Days, has now played Drew Carey’s mom on The Drew Carey Show, Topher Grace’s grandmother on That ’70s Show, and Lauren Graham’s grandmother on Gilmore Girls.)

And for the audience, this implied celebrity interbreeding can feel oddly satisfying—as though the stars of today have been birthed by the stars of yesteryear. But with Meet the Fockers, the ploy’s reached its apotheosis, and its stale date: the technique is now so ubiquitous that its impact’s been defused. Which is why stunt casting is moving to the next logical level: casting famous people opposite their real-life offspring, as the movie Sylvia did last year, with Blythe Danner in a cameo as the mother of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Sylvia Plath. Apple Martin, prepare your résumé.

Parental Units: The Perverse Charm of Stunt Casting