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Stiller, De Niro work hard for the funny

8:14 AM, Dec 20, 2010   |    comments
Christine Taylor and Ben Stiller/AP
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By Susan Wloszczyna, USA TODAY

Hollywood has produced some unforgettable comedy duos over the years. Abbott and Costello. Martin and Lewis. Stiller and De Niro.

Stiller and De Niro?

Scoff if you must. But consider this: The farcical family saga about combative in-laws that began with Meet the Parents in 2000 and continued with Meet the Fockers in 2004 has collected nearly $850 million in worldwide box office so far.

That's the sort of cash that usually requires a hobbit, Jedi or comic-book hero in the lead.

With Wednesday's opening of 'Little Fockers,' which once again pits beta-male supreme Greg Focker against straight-arrow stickler Jack Byrnes, the unlikely pairing of Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro is primed to further solidify a place in the pantheon of classic cut-ups.

Like most successful comedy teams, theirs continues to be a match made in polar-opposite heaven. In this case, one's a master of mirth. The other, a king of drama.

Ever since 'Flirting With Disaster' and T'here's Something About Mary' established his lovable dweeb persona, Stiller, 45, has been the top banana of humiliating humor. Six-time Oscar nominee and two-time winner De Niro, 67, remains in the running as the world's greatest actor thanks to such indelible performances as those in "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull."

However, both share a distaste for interviews and aren't into the fame game. As De Niro once said, "I've never been one of those actors who has touted myself as a fascinating human being. I had to decide early on whether I was to be an actor or a personality."

Yet promote they must, and on this rainy day, they both greet their visitor with a smile. But as they sit at separate ends of a cushy couch, the clash-of-the-Tinseltown-titans electricity that crackles onscreen is suffering an outage in this tony hotel suite.
It's disappointing yet not surprising. The two actors are friends as well as collaborators, and De Niro is even more heavily invested in the success of the franchise since he's also a producer. But neither is known for off-the-cuff banter.

A blast from the past

With that in mind, a potentially incendiary subject is tossed out in the hopes of sparking some debate. Namely, a skit that appeared on the pilot episode of an old Fox series, The Ben Stiller Show, that lurks on YouTube.

Has De Niro ever seen Cape Munster?

"Cape Munster? No," he says, looking puzzled.

A sheepish Stiller squirms. "I might have given it to you on the last film. It was a takeoff on Cape Fear starring Eddie Munster."

His co-star laughs as Stiller explains his parody of the pulpy 1991 hit film directed by Martin Scorsese that featured De Niro in his last Oscar-nominated role as an obnoxious Southern psycho out for revenge. Trying to jog his memory, Stiller adds, "It's from 1992. You've never seen that?"

"No, no," De Niro mumbles.

"That's one thing that I did never thinking Bob and I would ever be working together," Stiller says of the spoof, which contains his dead-on imitation of De Niro in the guise of the werewolf-ish spawn of The Munsters TV show from the '60s.

Not that the older actor minds. "I love that stuff. I never find it upsetting. I think it is great."

When it comes to their ongoing franchise, each relates to his character on some level. Stiller, the New York-born son of comedians Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, says the three films in the series reflect the relationship stages that he and his wife of 10 years, actress Christine Taylor, were going through: proposal, marriage, children (daughter Ella, 8, and son Quinlin, 5).

Asked if he is a father-in-law and granddad himself, De Niro says his married son is going to be a dad for the second time in a couple of months and his single daughter has a 7-year-old son. "I have a pretty good relationship. The in-laws, my son's wife and her father."

Stiller says all involved wanted to move the focus back to him and De Niro in the new film. While the ticket sales reached $280 million for the first sequel, making it the No.2 highest-grossing live-action comedy domestically after "Home Alone," critics weren't all that turned on by the sexual shenanigans of Ma and Pa Focker, aka Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman.

The central relationship has shifted, though, allowing once-clumsy Greg to be more competent now that he and wife Pam (Teri Polo) are parents of twins and he's been entrusted with administrative duties in his job as a male nurse. And Jack is conflicted about his status as the clan's main man after a heart attack.

"These characters are in a different place in their life," Stiller says. "Greg is still Greg, but I want it to feel like there's at least mildly a change in the dynamic between Greg and Jack."
To that end, the father-in-law now is the one who finds himself in the movie's most embarrassing predicament, a prolonged scene dealing with the after-effects of a Viagra-style pill that recalls Stiller's outlandish stuck-zipper woes of films past.
Why did De Niro agree to that? Time is cut off before the subject can be broached.

The origins of 'Focker'

Stiller offers up the tidbit that Jim Carrey, who was originally supposed to star in Meet the Parents with Steven Spielberg directing, came up with the naughty-sounding surname of Focker. De Niro says he was the one who contributed the idea of the lie detector that ex-CIA operative Jack uses on Greg in the first movie.

A different tactic of pitching semi-facetious questions is tried to encourage humorous responses. De Niro is asked whether Francis Ford Coppola had to grant permission to use the term "the Godfocker," the title that Jack bestows on Greg when he hands over his role as the family patriarch. Italian-inspired music and Fredo-ish kisses accompany the moment.

"I don't think they had to," he replies in all seriousness. "Francis would have anything on that. And the other thing is, Paramount (which released The Godfather trilogy) is producing with Universal." Strike one.

So was Harvey Keitel, a De Niro pal since their breakthrough roles in 1973's Mean Streets, recruited to play a shady contractor to balance out Stiller buddy Owen Wilson's return as Pam's ex-flame? "I talked to Ben and Paul and Jane (Rosenthal, his producing partner). 'How about Harvey? Does it feel right for people?' And that was it." Strike two.

Does Stiller ever hear from real-life male nurses, who might consider Greg a hero? "I do, actually. They are pretty serious dudes." Strike three.

No joking here. But director Paul Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy) provides clues to why this sober-minded twosome works so well as a comedy team. "Their tone is so different, yet there is some weird underlying affection you can sense," he says. "It is so identifiable, the situation of being stuck with somebody and then weirdly wanting to please them."

That is especially true this time of year as the holidays encourage forced family togetherness. As Weitz says, "We are going to be with a bunch of people who make us act insane."
He also confirms that De Niro definitely has a sense of humor off-camera, although he adds, "It sometimes takes me a little bit to realize that he has cracked a joke because he is so dry."

After spending three films as Stiller's spouse and De Niro's daughter, Polo offers more revealing insider info on what makes these guys tick.

While De Niro often comes across as intense, intimidating and prone to violence on film, she says, "The surprising thing about Bob is he is a very shy man, not talkative, not an overt personality. But there is an incredible warmth about him. He opened his arms and let me in simply because I was playing his daughter. I was able to get closer than many people are allowed. He has a true paternal instinct."

She did suffer his wrath once after she made noise during a rehearsal. "He got short with me. He couldn't hear.'

But an hour later when they were shooting the scene, "He put his face in my face and his hand on my shoulder and said, 'I'm terribly sorry I was short with you.' I burst into tears."

Funny people are different

De Niro might be a secret sweetheart. But Polo was equally unprepared to see how serious Stiller could be about his work. "He is such a funny man onscreen, but he is very focused and a perfectionist on set. Some of the funniest people can be tortured souls. Not that Ben is, but it is interesting what funny people are really like."

And yes, the two men can be competitive. "There is a spark, a gleam in their eyes," she says. "They try to one-up each other and throw the other one off. But it is out of absolute respect. They both can be ornery as hell but fascinating to watch."
Turns out, a Focker-worthy moment unexpectedly crops up as the interview draws to a close when De Niro struggles to recall when he first noticed Stiller.

"Didn't you go to The House of Blue Leaves," suggests Stiller, referring to his stage debut as the son in the 1986 revival of John Guare's play.
No answer.

Stiller, a mite agitated: "I know you did because we were all like 'De Niro is here.' It was at Lincoln Center but it might have been on Broadway also."

De Niro: "I can't remember."

Stiller, who is about to revisit the play on Broadway this spring in the part of the father, looks about as crestfallen as Greg does when he realizes Jack wants him to treat his erectile problems.

"I must have made a huge impression."
Copyright 2010, USA TODAY International. Dist. by Tribune Media Services International.

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