Anne Meara, who became famous as half of one of the most successful male-female comedy teams of all time and went on to enjoy a long and diverse career as an actress and, late in life, a playwright, died on Saturday in Manhattan. She was 85.
Her death was confirmed by her husband and longtime comedy partner, Jerry Stiller, and her son, the actor and director Ben Stiller. They did not provide the cause.
Ms. Meara was an experienced but relatively unknown stage actress when she joined forces with Jerry Stiller, as members of the Compass Players, an improvisational theater troupe that evolved into Second City (where another male-female team, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, had gotten their start), and later on their own as Stiller and Meara. The duo began performing in New York nightclubs in 1961 and within a year had become a national phenomenon.
But even during the heyday of Stiller and Meara, Ms. Meara also pursued a separate career as an actress. She had already amassed an impressive list of stage credits before beginning her comedy career, including an Obie Award-winning performance in “Mädchen in Uniform” in 1955 and roles in several Shakespeare in the Park productions. (She was a witch in “Macbeth” in 1957.)
She later appeared both on and off Broadway, in films, and especially on television, where she was seen on a wide range of series, from “Rhoda” and “Archie Bunker’s Place” on CBS to “Sex and the City” and “Oz” on HBO.
A tall redhead with a brassy voice and a self-confident demeanor, Ms. Meara was a natural for comedy but frequently played dramatic parts as well. “Comedy, drama, it’s the same deal,” she said in an interview for the Archive of American Television in 2008. “You don’t really act differently; you just make adjustments.”
Anne Meara was born in Brooklyn on Sept. 20, 1929, and raised in Rockville Centre on Long Island. An only child, she was the daughter of Edward Meara, a lawyer, and the former Mary Dempsey, who committed suicide when her daughter was 11. After studying for a year at the Dramatic Workshop at the New School in Manhattan, Anne began her career in summer stock in 1948.
She met Mr. Stiller in 1953 and married him soon after, but it would be some time before they began working as a team. The idea, they both agreed, was his; she did not think of herself as a comedian, but because work was scarce she reluctantly agreed.
“Jerry started us being a comedy team,” she said in 2008. “He always thought I would be a great comedy partner. At that time in my life, I disdained comedians.”
In the 1960s Stiller and Meara were regular guests on the variety and talk shows of Ed Sullivan and many others, and performed in nightclubs all over the country. In the 1970s their voices were heard on radio commercials for Blue Nun wine and other products.
Ms. Meara and Mr. Stiller’s relationship was the basis for their best-known comedy routines, which told the continuing story of Hershey Horowitz and Mary Elizabeth Doyle, a short Jewish man and a tall Catholic woman who had virtually nothing in common except their love for each other.
On their first date, arranged by a computer, Hershey and Mary Elizabeth were surprised to learn that they lived on the same block but knew none of the same people. (There was one significant difference between the real-life couple and the comedy version: Ms. Meara, though born and raised Roman Catholic, converted to Judaism in 1961.)
By the end of the decade, Mr. Stiller and Ms. Meara were both concentrating on their individual careers, but they continued to perform together from time to time. She made several guest appearances on the sitcom “The King of Queens,” on which Mr. Stiller (who had also memorably played Frank Costanza on “Seinfeld”) was a regular; her character married his in the series finale in 2007.
In 2010 they began appearing in a series of web videos produced by their son in which they sat on a couch and talked, to the camera and occasionally to each other, about a variety of topics.
In 1975 Ms. Meara starred in “Kate McShane,” an hourlong drama about a lawyer that, despite generally good reviews, was canceled after two months. “They never really made her a full-blooded woman,” she said of her character in 2008. “She had no love life; she was really a nun.”
That was her only starring role on television, but she kept busy in a range of supporting roles on the small screen well into the 21st century. In addition to her prodigious prime-time work, she appeared occasionally on the soap opera “All My Children” in the 1990s. During her career, she was nominated for four Emmy Awards and won a Writers Guild Award as a co-writer for “The Other Woman,” a 1983 TV movie.
She had memorable character parts in movies as well, including a teacher in “Fame” (1980) and a personnel manager in “Reality Bites” (1994), Ben Stiller’s feature-film directorial debut. Onstage, she was in the original Off Broadway production of John Guare’s dark comedy “The House of Blue Leaves” in 1971 — her son had a small role in the 1986 Broadway revivaland the lead role in a second revival, in 2011 — and she was nominated for a Tony for “Anna Christie” in 1993.
In addition to her husband and her son, Ms. Meara is survived by a daughter, the actress and comedian Amy Stiller, and two grandchildren.
Ms. Meara branched out into writing in 1995, when her comedy “After-Play” was presented Off Broadway. Her “Down the Garden Paths” had a brief Off Broadway run in 2000, with a cast headed by Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson.
“After-Play” has been produced by a number of regional theaters, sometimes with both Ms. Meara and Mr. Stiller in the cast. But neither of them was in the original cast, and she did not conceive it as a Stiller and Meara vehicle.
“I wanted to do something on my own,” she told The New York Times in 1995. “It’s the same way he feels good about doing ‘Seinfeld.’ The irony is, I feel we’re closer personally than when we were out going to nightclubs.”
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