Stiller, Ben and Wilson, Owen
Stiller, Ben and Wilson, Owen
Actor, director, writer, producer
Actor, director, writer
Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson are considered to be one of the top comic duos of the 2000s. But, they are also compared to such legendary comedians as Bud Abbott (1900–1974) and Lou Costello (1906–1959), who appeared as Abbott and Costello in a bevy of films in the 1940s. As Joel Stein of Time remarked, "Stiller updates Lou Costello with an agitated everyman quality, while Wilson does the smartest dumb guy ever." The pair has appeared together in six films, including The Royal Tenenbaums, Zoolander, and Starsky & Hutch, and if they have their say, their run will continue indefinitely. As Stiller told Shaun Adler of Cinema Confidential, "We just enjoy each other's company and have fun working together. As long as people seem to allow us to work together, I think it will kinda keep going."
Comedy in the genes
Ben Stiller was born on November 30, 1965, in New York City to legendary comedians Jerry Stiller (c. 1927–) and Anne Meara (1929–). As a comedy team the couple often performed on the popular 1960s variety program The Ed Sullivan Show. Meara went on to star in her own short-lived TV series Kate McShane ; she was also regularly featured on such 1970s sitcoms as Rhoda and Archie Bunker's Place. To modern audiences, Jerry Stiller is probably best known for his role as Frank Costanza on Seinfeld. Because of his parents' work, Ben and older sister Amy basically grew up in show business. They hobnobbed with celebrities and they frequently traveled to set locations, which Stiller enjoyed far more than staying home and hanging out with kids his own age.
When he was very young it was obvious that Stiller would someday follow in his famous family's footsteps. He and his sister regularly wrote and performed their own skits. They also put on plays based on scenes from Shakespeare, which meant that Ben had to wear his sister's tights. In addition, Stiller showed an early knack for directing. At age ten, he began shooting films using a Super-8 camera. The plots of his movies usually followed the same storyline: a bully would pick on young Stiller and he would seek a swift and awful means of revenge. When he was eight years old, the budding actor/director made his first television appearance, playing the violin on The Mike Douglas Show. Just two years later, when he was ten, Stiller landed a guest spot on his mother's TV series.
"I don't think it's very easy to be funny. I'm just not a naturally cheery person."
Ben Stiller, Interview, April 1996.
In 1983, after graduating from the Calhoun School in New York, Stiller headed west to attend the School of Theater, Film, and Television at the University of California, Los Angeles. He lasted only nine months. Eager to be out of the classroom and working in show business, Stiller returned to New York where he cut his teeth in theater. He worked as a busboy and waiter until 1986 when he won a small role in the Broadway play The House of Blue Leaves. The play featured veteran actor John Mahoney (1940–), who would later costar as Martin Crane in the long-running sitcom Frasier. During production, Stiller collaborated with Mahoney on a short film spoof of the 1986 drama The Color of Money, which is about an up-and-coming young pool shark and his older mentor. In Stiller's send-up, he and Mahoney play two conmen who instead of frequenting pool halls, go to bowling alleys and hustle lunch money from school kids.
A show of his own
In the late 1980s, Stiller made some guest appearances on TV; he also made his big screen debut in 1987 in Empire of the Sun. In 1989, however, he got his first real break when his Money spoof was purchased by Lorne Michaels (1944–), longtime producer of the late-night comedy program Saturday Night Live (SNL). Michaels also hired Stiller to join the show as a writer and cast member. Stiller, however, was not happy at SNL, primarily because he was not allowed the freedom to create his own short films. After less than one season he quit the show and headed to Los Angeles where he was hired by MTV. At first, Stiller directed a comedy program called Colin Quinn: Back to Brooklyn, but MTV executives were so impressed they pulled Stiller off the show to develop a series of his own.
The Ben Stiller Show debuted on MTV in 1990 and was, as Josh Wolk of Entertainment Weekly called it, a "pastiche of pointed pop-culture satire." It aired only briefly, but was picked up by Fox Network in 1992. The half-hour sketch comedy featured Stiller and cast mates doing parodies of everything from infomercials to bad 1970s TV to modern movies. The inspiration for the show came from SCTV, an ensemble-based sketch series that featured Canadian comics such as John Candy (1950–1994), Eugene Levy (1946–), and Martin Short (1950–). As Stiller remembered in a BBC interview, he used to spend hours watching SCTV as a kid: "It was one of the shows that my parents and I could watch together and enjoy."
Stiller and Wilson: On-Screen Duo
Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson have appeared in six movies together. They are:
The Cable Guy, 1996.
Permanent Midnight, 1998.
Meet the Parents, 2000.
The Royal Tenenbaums, 2001.
Starsky & Hutch, 2004.
Stiller's series may have been short-lived (it consisted of only thirteen episodes), but it definitely served as the launching pad for the young entertainer's career. It also helped launch the careers of several other hip, young comics, including Andy Dick (1965–) and Janeane Garofalo (1964–), who would collaborate with Stiller on many future projects. In addition, Stiller's directing skills were honed. As his then-girlfriend Jeanne Tripplehorn told Jess Cagle of Entertainment Weekly, "I always thought the Fox show was Ben's film school. When he would do those [film parodies], he would research the exact style of the directors and learn how they worked." The show was cancelled in 1992, but Stiller felt somewhat vindicated a year later, when he nabbed an Emmy Award (the highest achievement in television) for best writing in a variety or music series.
His Emmy win cleared the way for Stiller's big-screen project of 1994, Reality Bites, a film about a group of twenty-somethings in Houston, Texas, who face the trials and tribulations of life after college. Stiller directed the movie and co-starred in it along with Ethan Hawke (c. 1970–), Winona Ryder (1971–), and pal Garofalo. The film received mixed reviews and did poorly at the box office, but it was embraced by younger fans who saw it as a very real look at the post baby-boom generation, known as Generation X. It became a video cult classic and Stiller earned a reputation as a promising young independent film director. An independent film (also known as an indie film) is one that is low budget and usually made outside the big Hollywood studio system.
Stiller gives Wilson his first movie role
Over the next several years Stiller proved that he could work equally well on independent or big-budget projects, although he received the most acclaim for his indie affiliations. For example, the studio-backed If Lucy Fell (1996), which he co-starred in with Sarah Jessica Parker (1965–), was considered to be forgettable, but critics felt that Stiller gave a shining performance in the much smaller Flirting with Disaster, also from 1996. That same year, the actor returned to the director's chair and put a dark spin on a movie that what was supposed to be a goofy comedy, The Cable Guy. Originally written as another wacky vehicle for comic Jim Carrey (1962–), Stiller originally passed on the project. But, after Judd Apatow (c. 1968–), a former writer for The Ben Stiller Show, came on board, he and Stiller retooled the script and turned it into a darker, edgier film. Fans, however, were not expecting such a dark performance by Carrey and Cable Guy sagged at the box office. The Cable Guy also featured Owen Wilson in his first film role.
Owen Cunningham Wilson was born on November 18, 1968, in Dallas, Texas, the middle son of Robert, an ad executive, and Laura, a photographer. Older brother Andrew and younger brother Luke would also one day go into show business. The Wilsons, however, were not sure what would become of young Owen, who was a self-described troublemaker. He earned horrible grades in school, had his famous nose broken in the ninth trade, and was expelled from school for cheating. As a result, Wilson was shipped off to a military academy in New Mexico. "At that point," he admitted to Amy Longsdorf of the Morning Call, "my mom and dad never thought I'd amount to anything." After high school, Wilson attended the University of Texas at Austin where he majored in English. He also met his future writing partner, Wes Anderson (1969–).
In 1992 Wilson and Anderson wrote, directed, and produced a short film called Bottle Rocket, about three friends who set out on a crazy crime spree. The movie was accepted at the Sundance Film Festival (an annual festival in Utah that supports emerging and independent films), and eventually made its way to the desk of veteran producer and writer James L. Brooks (1940–). Brooks agreed to back a full-length version of Bottle Rocket, which was released in theaters in 1996. The movie made only $1 million at the box office, but it was widely praised by critics. Based on Bottle Rocket 's poor showing, Wilson almost decided to throw in the towel. Friends in the industry, including Ben Stiller, convinced him otherwise. In 1996, Stiller offered Wilson a role in The Cable Guy. That same year, Wilson and Anderson collaborated as writers for the second time, which resulted in the critical and box-office success Rushmore.
In 1997 Stiller signed a multimillion-dollar deal with Fox to direct at least two feature films for their Fox 2000 division, and in the late 1990s Stiller seemed to have his pick of movie roles. The parts he chose were wildly different, and showed that the actor definitely had a range of styles. In 1998, for example, he co-starred in Permanent Midnight, a disturbing film based on the life of TV writer Jerry Stahl (c. 1954–), who also happened to be a heroin addict. The movie received so-so reviews, but Stiller was singled out for his role. As People Weekly enthused, Stiller turned in an "intense, take-no-prisoners performance." Midnight made friends out of Stiller and Stahl, who would work together again in the 2000s; the movie also featured Wilson in a small role.
The year 1998 also saw Stiller in There's Something About Mary, an over-the-top comedy written, produced, and directed by the Farrelly Brothers, known for such creations as Dumb and Dumber (1994). Most critics felt it was nothing more than a gross-out comedy that depended on crude jokes and physical humor, but moviegoers disagreed and turned it into the sleeper hit of the year. It was also the first project that Stiller was attached to that brought in big bucks at the box office; Mary took in $130 million during its first two months in theaters.
A "royal" partnership
Following the success of Rushmore, Wilson remained firmly planted in Hollywood. Known for his unconventional good looks and his unique, low-key acting style, he was cast in movie after movie, including The Haunting (1999), Shanghai Noon (2000), and Behind Enemy Lines (2001). By the time Wilson co-starred with Stiller in 2004's Starsky & Hutch, he was bringing in $10 million per picture. The former troublemaker from Texas also continued to add to his writing credentials. In 2001, he and Anderson penned their third film, The Royal Tenenbaums.
Into the 2000s, Stiller appeared in a string of comedies, the first of which was the hit Meet the Parents (2000), in which Wilson also had a role. He then joined Wilson for The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), playing Chas Tenebaum, the financial wizard in a family of child prodigies. Wilson's brother, Luke, appeared as Richie Tenenbaum, a tennis champion, and Gwenyth Paltrow rounds out the Tenenbaum siblings as the adopted sister Margot, a gifted playwright. Veteran actor Gene Hackman plays their father, Royal, who, after having deserted his family years ago, returns to make peace with his ex-wife and children. The film earned Wilson an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay.
Stiller in turn tapped Wilson for Zoolander (2001), which Stiller also directed and co-wrote. The story, which Lisa Schwarzbaum of Variety called "90 minutes of elaborate comedic silliness," is a parody of the modeling world that centers on male model Derek Zoolander, a character originally created by Stiller in 1996. Although Schwarzbaum acknowledged that Stiller was a master at "skewering showbiz fabulousness," she, like most critics, also panned Zoolander for being a "feature-film dud."
Although Zoolander did not fare well in theaters, it did prove that Stiller was a master at creating a stellar ensemble cast of friends and family members, a trend that would continue throughout the 2000s. In addition to Wilson, who co-starred as Hansel, Stiller's rival, the movie featured Stiller's parents, sister Amy, wife Christine Taylor (whom he married in 2000), and a slew of acting buddies, including Andy Dick, Vince Vaughn (1970–), and Will Ferrell (1968–). Based on Stiller's star power, the DreamWorks film studio inked a three-year deal with the hot young comedian who now operated his own production company called Red Hour Films. As a result, in 2004 Stiller's plate was more than full. He starred in four movies, Along Came Polly, Envy, and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. His fourth film of 2004 was Starsky & Hutch, which co-starred Wilson.
By the end of 2004, Stiller had completed Meet the Fockers, the sequel to the 2000 hit Meet the Parents. He was also hard at work on a project that had been a dream of his for several years, a screen adaptation of the novel What Makes Sammy Run, written by Bud Schulberg. In 2004 Wilson wrapped up production on The Wendell Baker Story, a family affair since Wilson wrote the script with brother Luke. The movie was also co-directed by Luke and older brother Andrew. He also teamed with director Wes Anderson once again for The Life Acquatic (2004).
For More Information
Cagle, Jess. "Master of 'Disaster' Ben Stiller." Entertainment Weekly (April 19, 1996): pp. 50–54.
Dargis, Manohla. "Interview with Ben Stiller." Interview (April 1996): pp. 40–43.
Longsfort, Amy. "Interview with Owen Wilson." Morning Call (Allentown, PA) (February 14, 1999): p. F1.
"Review of Permanent Midnight. " People Weekly (September 28, 1998): p. 39.
Schwarzbaum, Lisa. "Pret-a-Passe: Ben Stiller's Clueless Male Model Tries to Play Hero in Zoolander, a High-Fashion Comedy That's So Last Year." Entertainment Weekly (October 5, 2001): p. 107.
Stein, Joel. "He's With Him: Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson Have Made Six Films Together. In Hollywood, Some Marriages Don't Make It That Far." Time (March 8, 2004): p. 70.
Wolk, Josh. "Stiller Standing." Entertainment Weekly (December 5, 2003): p. 75.
Adler, Shaun. "Interview: Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller of Starsky and Hutch." Cinema Confidential News (March 1, 2004) http://www.cinecon.com/news.php?id=0403011 (accessed on August 20, 2004).
Papamichael, Stella. "Ben Stiller: Starsky and Hutch." BBC Online: Films (March 12, 2004) http://www.bbc.co.uk/films/2004/03/12/ben_stiller_starsky_and_hutch_interview.shtml (accessed on August 20, 2004).
Stiller, Ben. "Interview with Ben Stiller." By Todd Gilchrist. Blackfilm.com (June 2004) http://www.blackfilm.com/20040618/features/benstiller.shtml (accessed on August 20, 2004).