Actor and comedian Jerry Stiller is being remembered for playing high-strung dads on “Seinfeld” and “The King of Queens,” but in Green Bay, it was all about the time he paid a visit to Al’s Hamburger Shop as Vince Lombardi.
Stiller, whose death at age 92 was announced Monday by his son, Ben Stiller, played the legendary Green Bay Packers coach — or more specifically, the ghost of — in a series of 10 Nike commercials in the ’90s, including one filmed at the iconic diner in downtown Green Bay.
Stiller donned special gap-toothed uppers, black-rimmed glasses, a fedora, a long winter coat, extra chest padding and a Packers sweater to portray Lombardi’s ghost as he dropped in on scenes around what was then the present-day National Football League.
The Green Bay spot was filmed in May 1996 at Al’s, Lambeau Field and a St. Norbert College practice field. Al’s, a downtown fixture on Washington Street since 1934, was chosen for its character. Producers with the ad agency behind the commercial were looking for a place that said Green Bay.
Details were mostly kept under wraps, because back in 1996, before social media and cellphones, you could do that. Al’s owner Judy Rank told the Press-Gazette at the time that it was an honor to be chosen and that it was a fun and hectic day of shooting. Her son, Perry Rank, said in The Hartford Courant the following year, “They made us leave when Stiller came in.”
Nike choose Stiller to capture the intensity Lombardi brought to the game, because of his portrayal of the fiery Frank Costanza, George Costanza's dad, on “Seinfeld.” (See the Season 7 episode where Frank Costanza berates George Steinbrenner over the New York Yankees trading Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps in 1988.)
In a 1997 interview with The New York Times, Stiller talked about playing Lombardi. “I’ve studied Lombardi a lot. Vince must’ve had a 140 IQ. Frank Costanza is maybe a 92. Frank can’t inspire George to win. But Lombardi inspired men to five championships,” he said.
In the same interview, Stiller, who had used his own recent hip replacement surgery to capture Lombardi’s walk, said playing the legend had turned him into a Packers fan and that he found himself sometimes shouting at quarterback Brett Favre on the TV.
He had been invited to attend the Packers vs. Carolina Panthers NFC championship game at Lambeau Field on Jan. 12, 1997, but had to pass because of rehearsals for the play “Three Sisters." He wouldn’t be able to make Super Bowl XXXI, either.
“Vince would understand,” Stiller told the Times. “He’d say, ‘Go be an actor.’”
Contact Kendra Meinert at 920-431-8347 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @KendraMeinert.