Meara was born in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of parents of Irish descent, Mary (née Dempsey) and Edward Joseph Meara, a lawyer. She was raised in Rockville Centre, New York on Long Island, an only child. When Anne was 11 years old, her mother committed suicide. When she was 18, Meara spent a year studying acting at the Dramatic Workshop at The New School in Manhattan. The following year, 1948, she began her career as an actress in summer stock. Meara met actor-comedian Jerry Stiller in 1953 and they married the following year. Until he suggested it, she had never thought of doing comedy. “Jerry started us being a comedy team,” she said. “He always thought I would be a great comedy partner.” They joined the improvisational company The Compass Players (which later became The Second City), and after leaving, formed the comedy team of Stiller and Meara. In 1961 they were performing in nightclubs in New York, and by the following year were considered a “national phenomenon,” said the New York Times.
Their often-improvised comedy routines brought many of their real-life relationship foibles to live audiences. Their skits focused on domestic themes, as did Nichols and May, another comedy team during that period. “They were Nichols and May without the acid and with warmth,” notes author Lawrence Epstein. They also added a new twist to their comedy act, he adds, by sometimes playing up the fact that Stiller was Jewish and Meara was Catholic. After Nichols and May broke up as a team in 1961, Stiller and Meara were the number one couple comedy team by the late 1960s. And as Mike Nichols and Elaine May were not married, Stiller and Meara became the most famous married couple comedy team since Burns and Allen. After some years honing the act, Stiller and Meara became regulars on The Ed Sullivan Show, with 36 appearances, and other TV programs, including The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. They released their first LP in 1963, “Presenting America’s New Comedy Sensation: Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara Live at The Hungry I,” which became a hit. By 1970, however, they broke up their act because it was affecting their marriage: “I didn’t know where the act ended and our marriage began,” complained Meara in 1977. Stiller agreed, fearing “I would have lost her as a wife.”
During the 1970s, Meara and Stiller wrote and performed many radio commercials together for Blue Nun Wine. She had a recurring role on the sitcom Rhoda as airline stewardess Sally Gallagher, one of the title character’s best friends. She also had a small role as “Mrs Curry” opposite Laurence Olivier in The Boys from Brazil (1978). In 1975 she starred in her own series Kate McShane on CBS, for which she was nominated for an Emmy Award, but the series was cancelled after only 10 episodes. Meara costarred with Carroll O’Connor and Martin Balsam in the early 1980s hit sitcom Archie Bunker’s Place, which was a continuation of the influential 1970s sitcom All in the Family. She played the role of Veronica Rooney, the bar’s cook, for the show’s first three seasons (1979–1982). During that time, she acted in the movie Fame (1980), in which she played English teacher Elizabeth Sherwood. She also appeared as the grandmother in the TV series ALF in the late 1980s. Her own 1986 TV sitcom, The Stiller and Meara Show, in which Stiller played the deputy mayor of New York City and Meara portrayed his wife, a television commercial actress, was unsuccessful. Starting in October 2010, Meara and her husband Jerry Stiller began starring in a Yahoo! web series called Stiller & Meara produced by Red Hour Digital, a production company owned by their son Ben Stiller. She accepted a role in the Off-Broadway play Love, Loss, and What I Wore for an April 27 through May 29, 2011, run with Conchata Ferrell, AnnaLynne McCord, Minka Kelly and B. Smith. She continued actively developing the next generation as demonstrated by teaching a technique and scene study class at HB Studio up until her death. Meara died on May 23, 2015 at her home in Manhattan, at the age of 85. No exact cause was provided but some sources cite “natural causes”. She is survived by her husband, two children, and two grandchildren.
- September, 20, 1929
- Brooklyn, New York
- May, 23, 2015
- New York, New York
Cause of Death
- natural causes