Star-Bulletin Features

Saturday, February 9, 2002

In "The Independent," Jerry Stiller stars as filmmaker Morty Fineman, responsible for such shlock as "The Man With Two Things" and "Venus de MoFo."

Jerry Stiller plays likable,
inept producer in
‘The Independent’

By Tim Ryan

Jerry Stiller sounds like the kind of person you would want as a friend, parent or drinking buddy.

He listens well, speaks softly, offers advice reluctantly, and shares lots of personal information. That's what 35 years of therapy will do for the psyche, he says from the set of the CBS series "King of Queens," on which he plays Arthur Spooner, Carrie Heffernan's (Leah Remini) father.

Stiller, in his mid 70s and an actor-comedian for a half century, is nothing like the neurotic and overbearing but well-meaning father, Frank Costanza, he played on the TV series "Seinfeld."

"But that's my opinion; you should probably ask my son (actor Ben Stiller)," he said.

Now for the first time, Stiller is starring in a film, "The Independent," playing likable, though artistically inept, producer Morty Fineman.

"I have seen guys like Morty who are well-meaning but don't have any artistic talent," Stiller said laughing. "I find that to be true mostly with agents.

"They didn't know anything about the talent but they knew how to sell and get actors work."

Morty, Stiller says, is "one of a kind, a bull in a China shop but a guy who likes to get things done, though he hungers for acknowledgment."

Among Fineman's "art house" credits are "The Simplex Complex," a cautionary tale about herpes, and "Bald Justice," a revenge film in which bald men get back at those with hair. Also, "The Man With Two Things," "Bodaceous Oasis," "Day Glo Decolletage," "Sand in My Teddy," "Thong Monster," "Wind and Rain and Wet T-Shirts," "Whale of a Cop" and "I See London, I See France, What a Trip!"

Before the film's debut, an improbable full-page ad in the entertainment magazine Variety touted the 30th anniversary of Fineman Films with an open letter imploring acquisitions executives to invest in Fineman's catalog of more than 400 independent features with such titles as "Groovy Hippie Slumber Party," "Joan of Arkansas" and "Venus de MoFo." The ad and a Web site -- -- were concocted to market the film.

The Web site tells visitors that Fineman Films has been "dedicated to producing the finest in thought-provoking action, comedy, historical drama, restoration and animated films" for 30 years. "We welcome the serious film buff and the curious adolescent."

"THE INDEPENDENT" was a labor of love for Stiller, who began filming it in 1998, shortly after "Seinfeld" ended. The budget was so small that the actors, particularly Stiller, are doing as many interviews as they can to promote the film wherever it's about to open.

"The film has received wonderful notices at all the film festivals -- including the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo., though it didn't make the cut for the Sundance event, but still couldn't get distribution so it has just laid there," Stiller said.

During this time, the director kept adding scenes, including cameos by B-movie king Roger Corman, Peter Bogdanovich, Nick Cassavetes, Ron Howard, Karen Black, and even Stiller's son, Ben.

The film was conceived by Mike Wilkins, co-author of the offbeat tourist guide series "Roadside America," and Stephen Kessler, who directed Snapple and "Got Milk?" commercials, and 1997's "National Lampoon's Vegas Vacation."

"I used to feel that Hollywood was for the real stars and I never belonged here. "Probably that's how Morty feels," said Stiller, who splits his time between New York and Los Angeles, where he's flown in for "Kings of Queens" filming every two weeks.

"Morty is not afraid to fail; he perseveres through one pathetic project after another, trying to reach that brass ring," Stiller says.

The actor remembers a drama teacher announcing to a class that "Jerry Stiller isn't afraid to be funny and he has no taste. And taste is not an acquired attribute."

Stiller agreed. "The teacher was right," he said, laughing. "I figured right then I would be successful in this business.

STILLER WAS nominated for a 1997 Emmy Award and won the 1998 American Comedy Award for "Funniest Male Guest Appearance in a Television Series" and has appeared on Broadway and made film appearances in "The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three," "Airport '75," "Nadine," "Hairspray" and "The Pickle."

Stiller has no plans to slow down his acting career.

"There's a story about Neil Simon that says he went into therapy to learn how to stop writing," Stiller said. "If you keep working, you have no time to think about your mortality."

Stiller and his wife of 49 years, comedian Anne Meara, haven't been back to Hawaii since their son's very private wedding to actress Christine Taylor on Kauai last year."

"I remember we did a TV show in the '60s -- the Kraft Music Hall at Duke Kahanamoku's -- where Don Ho was the host and he sang 'Tiny Bubbles,' " Stiller said. "Hawaii was a dream place to visit back then; we had a wonderful time."

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