On This Day in History, February 28: He Didn’t Just Fiddle Around
Zero Mostel was born Samuel Joel Mostel in Brooklyn on Feb. 28, 1915, son of a rabbi, Israel Mostel, and his wife Zina (Druchs).
As a child he started doing imitations for the amusement of his classmates in Brownsville and developed a passion for art and drama. After graduating from CCNY as an art and English major and briefly attending NYU for a master’s degree, he worked during the Depression as a factory laborer, longshoreman and miner and filled other itinerant jobs, then lectured on art and began painting for a living.
He began his professional career as an entertainer in 1942, as a stand-up comic in nightclubs — one of them was with a cabaret act at the Café Society Downtown. Within months he was performing on radio and in vaudeville. A young Mostel appeared in the Broadway play Keep ’Em Laughing in 1942. In 1943 he played dual roles in the movie DuBarry Was a Lady.
After WWII service, Mostel resumed his stage and screen career. He played character roles in a number of films, memorably as a menacing heavy in Panic in the Streets (1950) and The Enforcer (1951).
His solid build and heavy-lidded eyes made him a convincing heavy, but his promising film career was cut short when he was blacklisted following his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1951. Although he denied before the HUAC any past or present membership in the Communist party, he could find no work as an actor for several years (another victim of Sen. McCarthy’s witch hunt).
He returned to his first love, painting, and eked out a living from his art before returning to the Broadway stage in 1958. In the early ’60s, he scored a personal triumph on the Broadway stage, winning a Tony Award for his performance in Rhinoceros (’61). In 1962 A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum opened on Broadway with Mostel assisted in his antics by Jack Gilford and others in creating a “farcically hysterical Hysterium.” The show rocked Broadway with laughter for over two years and won Mostel his second Tony.
In Fiddler on the Roof, Broadway’s biggest hit of 1964, Mostel played Tevye, the community’s pious dairyman. The show ran a record-breaking 3,242 performances. Mostel’s performance — his dialogues with God, his tragi-comic rendition of the song “If I Were A Rich Man” — amounted to a titanic tour de force. He won his third Tony for this performance. Mostel did not play through the entire run — there were several replacements in the part.
Now a heralded star, Mostel resumed his film career in 1966, after a 15-year absence from the screen. His screen credits include a film version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (’66) and Great Catherine (’67). He teamed up with fellow Brooklynite Mel Brooks in 1968 to star in the comedy The Producers, which many years later became a huge Broadway hit starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.
Mostel’s greatest disappointment was his failure to get the role of Tevye in the motion picture version of Fiddler on the Roof (Chaim Topol got the part).
Mostel appeared frequently on television in such programs as “Cavalcade,” “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and in the productions “Waiting for Godot” and “The World of Sholem Aleichem.”
In The Front (1976), his last film role before his death in 1977 of a cardiac arrest, he convincingly portrayed an actor who like himself was victimized by the Hollywood HUAC blacklist.
He has his place of honor on Brooklyn’s Celebrity Path at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Other than his three Tonys, his honors include the International Critics Award as Best Actor (1959). Mostel’s son, Josh Mostel, has become a screen actor, appearing in numerous films since 1971.
Read more Brooklyn history at Brooklyn Before Now, the Eagle’s affiliate history blog.
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