Movie Stars: Meara, Anne–Actress-Comedienne, Wife of Jerry Stiller, Mother of Ben Stiller, Dies at 85

Anne Meara, the longtime actress and comedienne, wife of Jerry Stiller and the mother of actor-director Ben Stiller, died Saturday. She was 85.

Jerry Stiller was Meara were married for 61 years and worked together almost as long.

Stiller and Meara were a top comedy act in the 1960s, appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” 36 times. The two were members of the improv group the Compass Players, which later became Second City.

Although Meara had converted to Judaism when married, Stiller & Meara’s material centered on the differences in their backgrounds, manifest in their signature “Hershey Horowitz/Mary Elizabeth Doyle” routines.

In 2010 the couple had their own Yahoo comedy series, “Stiller & Meara,” produced in part by son Ben.

But Meara was also a serious dramatic actress who received a 1993 Tony nomination for featured actress for her work in Eugene O’Neill’s “Anna Christie,” which starred Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson. She also penned a couple of plays that made it to Off Broadway.

Meara was also well known for recurring on daytime soap “All My Children” from 1993-98 as Peggy Moody; for her work on “Archie Bunker’s Place,” for which she received two of her four Emmy nominations.

She gave a strong performance as the indefatigable suburban mother in Greg Mottola’s 1997 indie “The Daytrippers.” In that film, Hope Davis plays a woman who can’t get her husband, who’s in Manhattan, on the phone, whereupon her mother, played by Meara, puts the suburban family in the station wagon to begin an antic search for him in the city.

Meara gave a memorable performance on the smallscreen, on a two-part episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street,” in which she played a schoolteacher in a tense hostage situation, drawing her fourth Emmy nomination.

In 1984 Meara shared a Writers Guild Award for penning the telepic “The Other Woman,” in which Hal Linden played a widower who toys with the notion of romance with his daughter’s sexy roommate but ultimately finds love with a woman played by Meara.

Meara appeared as two different characters on “The King of Queens,” where Stiller was a series regular from 1998-2007 as the much-married Arthur Spooner, the father of Leah Remini’s Carrie Heffernan. She played Mary Finnegan (the mother of Spence, played by Patton Oswalt); then she had a recurring role as Veronica, who married Stiller’s character in the final season of the series.

The actress recurred on “Sex and the City” as the mother of bartender Steve Brady and guested on “Will & Grace” in 2001.

“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” afforded Meara the opportunity to give two powerful guest performances. In 2004 she played the mother of a serial killer who, with anguish, helps the police apprehend her son before he can kill again; in a 2012 episode she played the mother of a prostitute (played by Patricia Arquette) who’s involved with an armed and dangerous man and then goes missing.

On HBO’s “Oz” Meara played the religious aunt of the imprisoned O’Reily brothers in episodes in 1999 and 2002.

Meara also had a long career in movies, often appearing with members of her family. Stiller and Meara starred in Joan Micklin Silver’s 1999 feature “A Fish in the Bathtub,” about a couple who have been bickering for decades, finally prompting the wife to move in with their son, played by Mark Ruffalo.

In Ben Stiller’s first feature directorial effort, 1994’s “Reality Bites,” Meara and her daughter Amy both had roles. In his 2001 comedy “Zoolander,” Meara and Amy had cameos, while Jerry played Zoolander’s manager and Ben’s wife Christine Taylor played a Time magazine reporter. Meara had a small role in the Shawn Levy-directed hit “Night at the Museum,” starring Ben.

Jerry was the star of 2000 mockumentary “The Independent,” in which he played Morty Fineman, a director of comically bizarre exploitation films with a message such as 1969’s “Groovy Hippie Slumber Party,” “Kent State Nurses” and — taking credit for the use of Roman numerals in film titles — war epic “World War III II.” Even in this low-profile, low-budget film, Ben Stiller, Amy Stiller and Meara supported the effort with cameos.

Similarly, in the much-earlier horror film “Highway to Hell” (1991), Jerry Stiller, Meara, as well as Ben and Amy, all had roles.

In 1998’s “Southie,” starring Donnie Wahlberg in the story of hoods in Boston’s famous working-class Irish neighborhood, Meara played the Wahlberg character’s ailing mother “with warm grit,” according to the Boston Phoenix.

Meara was born in Brooklyn to parents of Irish descent. She studied drama at HB Studio in Greenwich Village; decades later she would teach a course there herself. The young actress won an Obie for the 1955 Off Broadway production “Mädchen in Uniform.”

She made her Broadway debut in 1956 in a Michael Redgrave-directed production of Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country.” The same year she appeared in Brecht’s “The Good Woman of Setzuan” that also featured Jerry Stiller in a small role. In 1957 she appeared in the original drama “Miss Lonelyhearts.” In 1970, she co-starred in John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves” in New York. After a long absence, she returned to Broadway in 1988 in Richard Greenberg’s “Eastern Standard” before taking on “Anna Christie” in 1993.

Meara wrote and starred in the hit Off Broadway play “Afterplay” (1995), which also starred, at various times, Jerry Stiller, Rita Moreno, Rue McClanahan and Barbara Barrie. Meara also wrote “Down the Garden Paths,” which played Off Broadway in 2000 and starred Jerry Stiller, Amy Stiller and Eli Wallach.

In 2011 Meara and Conchata Farrell were replacements in an Off Broadway staging of “Love, Loss, and What I Wore,” the Nora and Delia Ephron play based on Ilene Beckerman’s book.

The actress made her small screen debut in 1954 on NBC series “The Greatest Gift.” She also appeared on an Arthur Penn-directed “The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse” adaptation of Robert Alan Arthur’s “Man on the Mountaintop” and, in 1959, in an ABC adaptation of “Ninotchka” that starred Maria Schell.

In the brief 1964 animated series “Linus! The Lion Hearted,” Stiller & Meara were credited for three episodes. She appeared in a 1971 TV adaptation of the musical “Dames at Sea,” starring Ann-Margret.

Meara also starred in her own, brief NBC series, “Kate McShane,” in which she played an attorney who solves mysteries, in 1975 — drawing her first Emmy nomination, for lead actress in a drama.

She was a series regular on “Archie Bunker’s Place,” from 1979-82, as Veronica Rooney, the bar’s wisecracking, alcoholic chef — picking up her second and third Emmy nominations, for supporting actress in a comedy, in 1981 and 1982.

She recurred on the brief ABC series “The Corner Bar” in 1972-73 as well as on “Rhoda” as one of the title character’s friends, Sally Gallagher or “Big Sally,” a divorced flight attendant. (Jerry Stiller appeared on one episode as her ex.) Later, in 1987-89, she recurred on NBC’s “ALF” as the mother of series star Anne Schedeen’s character.

Meara was also busy in the 1970s guesting on the likes of “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” “The Paul Lynde Show,” “Love, American Style” and Medical Center.”

The couple shot (and penned) a pilot, “The Stiller & Meara Show,” in 1986, but it was not picked up to series.

Meara’s feature work included roles in Arthur Hiller’s adaptation of Neil Simon’s “The Out of Towners” and Joseph Bologna and Renee Taylor’s adaptation of their own play “Lovers and Other Strangers,” both in 1970; in 1977’s Nasty Habits,” a satire of Watergate applied to the politics of a convent, both Meara and Stiller appeared, with the New York Times applauding Meara’s efforts as the “Gerald Ford of Crewe Abbey.” She had a small role in 1978 thriller “The Boys From Brazil,” starring Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck, and in 1980’s “Fame,” the actress played Mrs. Sherwood, the teacher concerned with the students’ traditional academic progress.

Meara appeared in the Paul Bartel-directed, Tim Conway-scripted 1986 comedy “The Longshot.” She played one of Robin Williams’ patients in 1990’s “Awakenings.”

In 1999 Comedy Central aired a Friars’ Club Roast of Jerry Stiller, with Roasters drawn from several generations including Meara and son Ben.

Stiller and Meara shared a star on the Hollywood Walk in Fame, awarded in 2007.