Once in a while your own instinct is better than your mother's. Just ask A-list comic actor Ben Stiller, who owes his latest multimillion-dollar film role to his boyhood television-watching preference for the '70s hit cop-buddy show Starsky & Hutch over his mom's own legal drama.
"I have a kind of funny memory because my mom, actress Anne Meara, had a one-hour dramatic television series (Kate McShane) that ran ten episodes in 1975. In that show she played a lawyer, but it was scheduled against Starsky & Hutch, he recently recalled, "and that's the one I watched."
So, in such a close-knit family how does his mom feel about his latest movie? "Well, it's kind of funny, because that was her first reaction when I told her I was doing this movie. She said, 'Oh, yeah, that's the show that got us cancelled,'" he says with a laugh.
But most of the time, Stiller has looked to his parents — dad, Jerry Stiller and mom, Anne Meara — for love and moral support as well as career advice. Ben Stiller grew up in the family business and the quirky comic actor has taken his family's legendary showbiz legacy to new levels.
From the moment Ben Stiller was born on November 30, 1965, in Manhattan, it appears that his destiny was decided. His parents are the comic duo Stiller and Meara, who made their mark on countless Ed Sullivan shows, traveled the nation to nightclubs and made Blue Nun wine famous with their hilarious radio commercials. Their Manhattan apartment was always filled with celebrities, so the family business was a natural draw for him. "If my parents were plumbers," he has frequently remarked, "who knows what I would be doing now?"
To begin his informal training, Ben and his sister Amy performed plays at home. Stiller would wear Amy's tights to perform Shakespeare. Stiller also developed an interest in directing, something he has continued to pursue and, at age 10, he began shooting films with his Super 8 camera — with Amy as his trusty assistant. And he hasn't stopped being before and behind the camera since (directing such films as Reality Bites (1994) and The Cable Guy (1996) and appearing in the Tony Award-winning play The House of Blue Leaves and Steven Spielberg's film Empire of the Sun (1987), as well as having his own (though short-lived) television show for which he won an Emmy).
Today, at age 38, Stiller is happily married to blonde beauty Christine Taylor (The Brady Bunch Movie and Zoolander), and they have an adorable 2-year-old daughter, Ella Olivia. He is still extremely close to his parents and sister and he has two current back-to-back hit movies on the big screen: Starsky & Hutch, with Owen Wilson and Along Came Polly, with Jennifer Aniston. His previous successful movies include, There's Something About Mary, Zoolander and Meet the Parents. His next project is the sequel, with Robert DeNiro, Teri Polo and Blythe Danner, called Meet the Fockers. Dustin Hoffman is slated to play Stiller's father.
Ben Stiller is always full of surprises, whether it's displaying his comic antics or creating a new and goofy character in a movie. Recently, Stiller stopped by a posh L.A. hotel for a nostalgic saunter down small-screen memory lane in Todd Phillips' Starsky & Hutch, his latest on-screen adventure.
The original TV show was about tough guy David Starsky and the more educated Ken Hutchinson, nicknamed Hutch, two plainclothes cops taking on dope dealers, muggers and other thugs, aided by their informant Huggy Bear and a red 1974 Torino. Both bachelors' private lives play as interweaving threads in the drama.
Being a fan of the popular mid-'70s television show starring Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul, Stiller says he took the idea of making a movie version of the show to Warner Bros., and the studio heads readily agreed to produce it. "Then, I thought that Todd Phillips (Old School) would be a great guy to direct it. So that was it. He took the ball and ran with it," Stiller recalls. Once Owen Wilson was selected as his partner in crime, Stiller said there was no argument as to who would play which character. "Hey, I've been Starsky since I was 10 years old. Whenever we played "Starsky & Hutch," it was like, if you were the dark-haired kid, if you were ethnic in any way, you were Starsky. I totally identified with Starsky."
To make the physical transformation, Stiller endured 45 days of tight-fitting jeans and a leather jacket and several extremely tight-fitting wigs. Some days he wore two wigs at a time, and when "you pull one wig off the other wig gets screwed up." But he couldn't use his own hair, which is graying. "My hairline is a little further back than Paul Michael Glaser's who has like this pristine perfect (hairline) to this day."
His wife, Christine, who visited him on the set, frequently saw him in his wigs and retro outfits. "My daughter came down when I was doing this scene and she just hated it when she saw this crazy Wolverine looking like a middle-aged Jewish guy."
One of the unique parts of this extremely comic film is the scene in which the leading men shed a few tears. So how about that crying stuff? "I think a man can be sensitive and cry and not necessarily be gay, right? I think that's part of being a well-rounded human being. Starsky could be like sort of the prototypical metro-sexual!"
Something new in the movie version is the plot line that Stiller's character is living up to his mother's reputation as a top-notch cop-something that was Owen's idea. Stiller clearly sees the parallel between the movie and his own life. From the moment he mentions his mother, he is eager to express his view that "she is an incredible actress."
"Of course, when you grow up with parents who are talented and have made their mark, I have huge respect for their work. In my mother's case, I feel like that's sort of an under-appreciated aspect of her career, that she is a really great dramatic actress," he says. "But I really respect her as a person and as an actress and as someone who's remained vibrant and in touch with everything. As she's gotten older, she's become cooler and just a better person. I really respect her taste; she has great taste."
His dad, who went from his previous hit character role as George's father in Seinfeld to his current hit character role as Carrie's father and Doug's father-in-law, Arthur Spooner, in King of Queens, has given his son one piece of advice over the years: "My father is always telling me to take care of myself and get a lot of rest. My dad has always told me, 'Sleep will fix anything. Go take a nap.' And I think he's right. I find when I get frazzled, if I get a good night's sleep I feel much better about things."
He says he has learned quite a bit from both of his loving parents, who are immensely proud of their son. "My dad and mom are different in their acting techniques. My dad, what he does is that he sort of has to focus on things. My mom is more open and is less about focusing on one thing. She's an avid reader, sees most movies that come out, and has written a couple of plays herself."
One of her plays, After Play, focuses on an after-theater dinner party among close friends who are killed in a car accident. The play gives them an opportunity to look back on their lives and figure out what they would have done differently if they were given the chance. As inspired audience members, we see we still have the chance to live our lives the way we want.
From his father he also inherited a great love of music. "My dad stopped listening to music in 1968 or something, and I think that I probably stopped listening to music in 1992. I've noticed that as I've gotten older, my tastes have changed and where 106.7 used to be number one on my radio, now 98.7 is number one. It just kind of happened. I realized I won't listen to what younger people are listening to now because my taste is different."
Was he a rocker boy or punk boy? "I was much more like Elton John. I wasn't like into it, but later on I sort of discovered the punk bands. Everything happened a little bit later for me."
If he wasn't busy enough, Stiller found the time to do a recurring role on several recent episodes of Larry David's HBO comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm. In the few episodes, Stiller and David were picked to star in Mel Brooks' hit musical The Producers. But David accidentally hits Stiller in the eye with a toothpick from an appetizer and Stiller is fired. How did this stint come about?
"I worked with Larry doing a sort of little vignette film for a benefit for the NRDC, the National Resource Defense Council. That's where we met a couple of years ago. And like everyone else, I'm a pretty big fan of the show. And I said, 'listen, if you have anything, I'd love to be a part of it.' And a year later, he called up and said, 'I've got this thing.' "
Luckily, Stiller said Brooks never called to ask him about taking a genuine role in The Producers. "I was actually really thankful that I got fired in the storyline, because I would've been uncomfortable doing the dancing and the singing."
In April, Stiller stars in Meet the Fockers, the sequel to his hit movie Meet the Parents. Barbara Streisand is considering playing his mom in the movie. He says she would play a really funny character, a sex therapist, in a genuine return to that What's Up Doc? version of comedy.
"These new characters in the film will give it a freshness. We're not trying to revamp the first one, we're just looking for a new energy there. And I think, in general, the way to approach a work is if you can do things that are more mainstream in a way that you feel good about them, that's really valid. That also really opens up avenues for you to do stuff that's not as mainstream."
One can see that as an actor, Stiller is not afraid of taking chances. But his other recent character, Reuben Feffer, is a risk analyst who turns his life upside down when his cheating new wife (Debra Messing) dumps him on their honeymoon, and he falls head over heels for a quirky, ferret-loving waitress named Polly Prince, played by the irrepressible Jennifer Aniston.
While Stiller swears he is a loving man, he does not consider his marsupial co-star to be one of the cuddliest of creatures. "I was bitten by the ferret, yeah, and I didn't do anything to him, I swear. It was really weird. We were doing this final scene where I come running after Jennifer and I'm holding the ferret and I also had just gotten a root canal the day before, so maybe it sensed that... And I was holding it up and he did this crazy turn around thing and he literally attached himself to my chin. And then he didn't let go. It was this surreal thing, where it's like, okay, the ferret is on my chin. Then I had to go and get a rabies shot. I didn't provoke it at all. Their teeth are sharp like razors. They are rat-like creatures; let's just face it."
The movie had many physical challenges as well, especially the dancing and the riotously funny scene with the sweaty man who has overactive glands. "The salsa dancing thing was different, I just took classes for a while and worked with a choreographer and tried to be as good as I can possibly be, which, of course is not that great. So luckily that worked for the script. It's fun to have something specific to work on."
The racquetball scene, he says, "was one of those things that we shot all day and the first hour you thought, 'This is great. This is going to be so cool.' Then after that first hour of playing racquetball — most people don't play for more than an hour, even professional racquetball players — those last 11 hours of the day were just torturous and horrible."
Playing such a high-strung guy one wonders what Stiller is neurotic about in his daily life. "I am not neurotic about germs. I will eat food off the floor if something drops. I mean, quickly. I don't have that issue. I guess...I don't know. I am not a great dancer. I don't dance in public anyway."
He is also eager to talk about his romantic chemistry with Friends star Jennifer Aniston. "I know that at the end of the day you hope that there is something there that works? So it is fun to watch them together and you believe them as two people who would be a couple or be attracted to each other or are just fun to watch together. But you can't just go for that result."
When the chemistry isn't there, he says, there is nothing you can do about it. "Jennifer and I knew that we both kind of enjoyed each other's company, could laugh and have fun together. She is just an extremely giving, fun, good person. But as far as how that translates into what people are watching on the screen, it is like anything else you do as an actor. I don't think you can be thinking about that because you can't control it. I guess you just have to go by instinct."
Sources: LifeStyles Magazine