Feb. 28, 1915
Amazingly talented comedian Zero Mostel was born Samuel Joel Mostel in Brooklyn, one of eight children. He was raised on the Lower East Side. His father was a rabbi, and wanted Mostel to follow in his footsteps. Passionate about painting and drawing, he preferred to copy the paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Crowds would gather to watch him work, and the young boy couldn’t resist make them laugh with his jokes about the art.
Intelligent and impatient, in 1936, he dropped out of NYU’s master’s art program after a year. In 1937, he was hired by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project to teach art. He also gave gallery lectures at WPA funded museums. His joke-filled lectures helped to hone his comedic side, and he was soon performing at private functions.
On February 16, 1942, Mostel became a comedian at the nightclub Cafe Society. He wowed the critics and audiences with his improv. Taking on the stage name “Zero” Mostel, he said, “if I accomplished only a middle level of fame, I still wouldn’t be a zero. If you know my name, how can I be a zero? Smart, huh?”
In 1943, Mostel performed on the radio and on the national nightclub circuit before spending most of WW2 overseas entertaining the military.
Amidst America’s growing fear of Communism, he returned to the nightclub circuit. By the Fifties, his gleeful mockery of the Red Scare, along with his contributions to leftist causes, made him a target for Senator Joe McCarthy. Film director and choreographer Jerome Robbins named him a Communist, and Mostel was dragged before the House of Un-American Activities Committee on October 14, 1955. Furious, he denied he was a Communist. He took the Fifth, refusing to save himself by naming names. Blacklisted by Hollywood for the next eleven years, he struggled to make ends met by selling his paintings. “I never thought I’d work again,” he later said.
Fortunately, the Blacklist didn’t affect Off-Broadway. In 1958, aided by his friend Burgess Meredith, he appeared in a production of “Ulysses in Nighttown,” based on James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses,” that Meredith was directing. For this role, he won an “Obie,” the Off-Broadway equivalent of a Tony.
While rushing to rehearsal for another play on January 13, 1960, he was hit by a bus, his left leg badly crushed. After numerous operations and nearly six months in the hospital, he was able to walk again using a cane. He continued to have severe pain in his leg the rest of his life.
In late 1960, he returned again to the stage, cast in the musical “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” The show was already in trouble with its current director George Abbott. Jerome Robbins was brought in as a replacement. Nervously, producer Harold Prince asked Mostel if he’d be willing to work with the man who had nearly ruined him. Mostel agreed, so as long as he didn’t have to socialize with Robbins. Mostel broke the tension at the first rehearsal by bellowing, “Hiya, Loose Lips!” at Robbins. Everyone, including Robbins, laughed and relaxed.
“Forum” was a tremendous hit, running for 964 performances at the Alvin Theatre from May 8, 1962 to August 29, 1964. “Forum” won six Tony awards, including Best Actor for Mostel.
He was equally marvelous in his iconic role in “Fiddler on the Roof,” also directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. “Fiddler on the Roof” opened at the Imperial Theatre on September 22, 1964. It ran for 3,242 performances, winning ten Tonys, including another Best Actor for Mostel.
Hollywood’s Blacklist revoked, Mostel appeared in movies throughout the Sixties. He starred in the film version of “Forum” (1966) and Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” in 1968, the latter of which he nearly refused. Director Mel Brooks had to convince him to join. But the vastly talented Mostel still preferred the stage, and eventually returned to his theatrical roots.
In September 1977, while trying out for the “Merchant of Venice” in Philadelphia, he felt dizzy. He was rushed to the hospital. On September 8, 1977, he died from an aortic aneurysm. He was just sixty-two.
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