“You can’t listen to other people,” said the actress Anne Meara, on the phone from the Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood. She may be the wife of TV-sitcom star Jerry Stiller, and the mother of high-grossing movie star Ben Stiller, but there was no mistaking her sandpapery, Brooklyn-inflected voice as she offered up that bit of wisdom: “You can’t listen to other people.”
Is that how you’ve lived your life, we asked?
When did she come upon that wisdom?
“About 10 minutes ago.”
At 76, she’s still got it. Ms. Meara still has the impeccable timing, warmth and no-nonsense approach—in short, the chops—which brought her success as an actress, comedienne and playwright. Asked about what stage she’s at in the writing of a new play, she replied, “I’m in a stage of despair.”
She was joking. Or was she? “Nothing lasts,” she continued. “Everything transforms into something else. So I figure I should be coming out of despair soon.” She took a deep breath. “I don’t know.”
Ms. Meara’s career as an actress and playwright has been as varied as it has been long. She’s done everything from Ed Sullivan to the New York Shakespeare Festival to commercials for Blue Nun Wine (that one won a Clio Award in 1975). The only role she’s played consistently is the one she plays in her Upper West Side home as Jerry Stiller’s wife. The couple has been married and performing together for over 50 years. But to the new generation of pishers, her defining role is as Ben Stiller’s mother.
They likely don’t know that Ms. Meara is working on her third play. Her first, After-Play (1995), was heartily reviewed and had a healthy run; her second, Down the Garden Paths (2000), didn’t do so well. In addition to working on the new play, she’s knocking out a memoir, which she said will veer substantially from her husband’s 2000 autobiography, Married to Laughter: A Love Story Featuring Anne Meara.
“I don’t have the memories of the things he has the memories of,” she said. “It’s like Rashomon, you know?”
She said that she was in Los Angeles to support her husband while he taped episodes of his NBC comedy, King of Queens—“I’m his groupie”—and to visit with her son Ben and her grandchildren. (Her daughter, comedian and actress Amy Stiller, lives in Manhattan.)
But for the most part, she said, she was spending her time in L.A. as any displaced Upper West Sider would: on the Internet reading liberal blogs.
“I’m a geriatric cyber-whacko,” she said. “I sit on my butt checking out every left-wing blog there is. And just to get the other side, I read that pompous man, Mr. Drudge.”
When she first started out, Ms. Meara disdained comedy. “I don’t know why,” she said. “I learned so much from comedy. And I’m so glad that Jerry’s the one who got us to do an act. Because the real cliché is, it’s the same thing, comedy/tragedy. It’s different sides of the same coin. Fortune-cookie idea. But it is so. It’s so.”
There is something immediately embraceable about an Anne Meara character, whether as the fiery high-school teacher who screams, “Don’t you kids think of anyone but yourselves?” in 1980’s Fame, or when she purrs, “I’m not an educated woman” in Greg Mottola’s The Daytrippers (1996).
“I wanted to do big emotional parts, where I burst into tears at the drop of the hat and everybody says, ‘My God, she’s so moving!’” Ms. Meara said. “I wanted to be like the wonderful actresses we had at that time—Kim Stanley and Maureen Stapleton. I was looking out there, rather than dealing with what I was, which was …. ” She paused. “You know, we’re all so many things.”
Would she have any advice for her younger self?
“I would tell myself to be patient,” she said. “And I would tell myself to just sort of relax, and to know one thing: that you can’t control everything. To try to control everything is sort of an emotional death, and it negates the people around you. And to enjoy what you’re doing in the moment—that, I think, I would tell myself.”
But, she added, “I couldn’t come to what I’ve come to now without having been a little meshugenah when I was younger. You understand me. You had to be there before you could get here. Not that I’m sitting on some throne of all-knowing wisdom. I’m not. Uncertainty—once you know you have to live with uncertainty, that’s good, because it’s always there.”