Zero Mostel was born Samuel Joel Mostel on February 28, 1915 in Brooklyn, New York, one of eight children of an Orthodox Jewish family. Raised in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the young Zero, known as Sammy, developed his talent for painting and drawing at art classes provided by the Educational Alliance, an institution serving Jewish immigrants and their children. Sammy often would go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to copy the paintings.
Sam Mostel matriculated at the City College of New York, then entered a master’s program in art at New York University after graduating from CCNY in 1935. He dropped out after a year and worked at odd jobs before being hired by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project to teach drawing and painting at the 92nd Street “Y”, the famous Young Men and Young Women’s Hebrew Association located on Manhattan’s 92nd St., in 1937.
Mostel married Clara Sverd, a CCNY classmate, in 1939, but the marriage was troubled due to personality conflicts. The couple separated in 1941 and divorced in 1944. While still teaching, Mostel supplemented his income by providing gallery lectures at various museums under the aegis of the WPA. His lectures were full of jokes as Mostel personally was a clown, and subsequently he was hired to perform at private parties.
Mostel auditioned as a comedian at the downtown nightclub Cafe Society in late 1941, a jazz club. Initially rejected, owner Barney Josephson hired Mostel after Pearl Harbor, figuring his patrons, now at war, could use some laughs. It was Ivan Black, the club’s press agent, who gave Sam Mostel the nickname Zero, explaining, “Here’s a guy who’s starting from nothing.”
Debuting at the Cafe Society on February 16, 1942, Zero was a hit with audiences and the critics, Simultaneously, Zero began appearing in the play “Cafe Crown” at the Cort Theatre, which opened on January 23, 1942 and played through May 23rd, closing after 141 performances. Zero made some impromptu appearances on stage, but he wasn’t officially part of the cast of the play, which was staged by Elia Kazan and starred Morris Carnovsky, Sam Jaffe (a future blacklistee), Whit Bissell, and Sam Wanamaker. Zero made his formal Broadway debut in “Keep ’em Laughing” on April 24, 1942 at the 44th Street Theatre. The show ran for 77 performances.
Within a year, he was touring the national nightclub circuit and appearing on radio. He had a brief stint in the Army in 1943, but was quickly discharged due to an unspecified physical disability. Zero spent the rest of the war entertaining the troops overseas.
Zero married Kathryn Harkin, a former Radio City Music Hall Rockette, on July 2, 1944, an act that ruined his relationship with his Orthodox Jewish parents as his new wife was a gentile. The two remained a married couple until his death and produced two sons: Josh Mostel, who was born in 1946, and Tobias, who was born in 1949.
In the post-war years, Zero began to branch-out as a straight actor. On October 19, 1948, he made his television debut in the series “Off the Record,” which was broadcast on the DuMont network, following it up with an appearance on October 26, 1948. He later appeared in the The Ford Theatre Hour (1948) episode “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” which was broadcast on January 16, 1949 on NBC. He was reunited with his “Cafe Crown” director Elia Kazan in the Oscar-winner’s movie Panic in the Streets (1950) (1950). In the movies, Zero often played heavies due to his physique, roles that downplayed his unique gift for comedy.
Zero had long been a leftist politically, and had made contributions to progressive causes. His nightclub act lampooned the red-baiters rampant at the time, and featured the character of a pompous senator called Polltax T. Pellagra. When he and the wife of his good friend ‘Jack Gilford’ were named by Jerome Robbins before the House Un-American Activities Committee as being communists, Zero was subpoenaed to testify by HUAC.
Mostel testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee on October 14, 1955. In a playful mood, he told the Committee that he was employed by “19th Century-Fox.” Zero denied he was a Communist, but refused to name names. He told the Committee that he would gladly discuss his own conduct but was prohibited by religious convictions from naming others. Consequently, he was blacklisted during the 1950s. Shut-out from the movies, he also lost many lucrative nightclub gigs, and he had to make due by playing gigs for meager salaries and by selling his paintings.
In the 1950s, Mostel bumped into Elia Kazan on the street in New York City, and the two reminisced. Kazan said Mostel chided him for putting Mostel through the paces in “Panic in the Streets,” forcing him to run more than he ever had. The two retired to a bar, and as they began to drink, s Mostel kept muttering, in reference to Kazan’s naming names before HUAC, “Ya shouldn’t a done that. Ya shouldn’t a done that.”
There was no blacklist in the theater, and his friend Burgess Meredith, a noted liberal, offered Zero the lead role in his 1958 Off-Broadway production of “Ulysses in Nighttown,” based on the Nighttown episode of James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses,” that Meredith was directing. Mostel’s performance as Leopold Bloom, Joyce’s Jewish Everyman, was a great hit with audiences and critics alike, and he won an “Obie,” the Off-Broadway equivalent of a Tony. Zero also starred in productions of “Nighttown” in London and Paris.
By the end of 1959, Zero again was appearing on television, cast in the “Play of the Week” episode “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” which was broadcast on December 14, 1959 in syndication. He also was cast in a Broadway play, “The Good Soup.”
Zero never opened in the play as he was hit by a bus on January 13, 1960. His left leg was severely injured, and required four operations. Zero was in the hospital for five months but regained the use of the leg.
He made a triumphant return to Broadway in the fall of 1960, starring in Ionesco’s absurdist tour-de-force “Rhinoceros,” for which he won a Tony award. He was cast in another “Play of the Week” episode, this time in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” which was broadcast on April 3, 1961 in syndication.
Zero and his friend Jack Gilford, who had also been blacklisted due to Jerome Robbins having named names and hadn’t worked for many years, were both cast in the Broadway musical “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” However, the show, under director George Abbott, was troubled. When Stephen Sondheim pitched Robbins to producer Harold Prince as the savior of “Forum,” which was floundering in its out-of-town tryouts, Prince phoned Mostel to ask whether he would be prepared to work with Robbins.
“Are you asking me to eat with him?” asked Mostel.
“I’m just asking you to work with him,” Prince replied.
“Of course I’ll work with him,” Mostel said. “We of the left do not blacklist.”
When Robbins showed up at his first rehearsal, everyone was terrified of him because of his reputation as a tough taskmaster and perfectionist. Robbins made the rounds of the cast, shaking hands. When he got to Mostel, there was silence. Then Mostel boomed, “Hiya, Loose Lips!”
Everyone burst out laughing, including Robbins, and the show went on. Robbins was uncredited for staging and choreographing “Forum,” which opened at the Alvin Theatre on May 8, 1962. “Forum” was a great hit, running for 964 performances at the Alvin and at the Mark Hellinger Theatre and later at the Majestic, closing on August 29, 1964. “Forum” won six Tony awards, including Best Musical and Best Director for George Abbott. Mostel won his second Tony and Gilford was nominated for the Tony for Best Featured Actor.
Zero followed up this triumph with his legendary turn as Tevye, the milkman with marriageable daughters in “Fiddler on the Roof,” based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem. With direction and choreography credited to Jerome Robbins, “Fiddler on the Roof” opened at the Imperial Theatre on September 22, 1964 and did not close until almost eight years later, at the Broadway Theatre on July 2, 1972, with a stop at the Majestic in between during the late ’60s. After seven previews, “Fiddler” racked up a total of 3,242 performances, making it one of the greatest Broadway smashes ever. After wining nine Tony awards in 1965, including Best Musical, Best Director, and Best Actor in A Musical (Zero’s third Tony), the show was awarded a 10th Tony, a Special Award in 1972 when “Fiddler” became the longest-running musical in Broadway history.
Zero was cast in the 1966 movie version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), and then concentrated on movies and television for the rest of his career. Most of his projects, with the exception of Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1967), did not fully utilize his talents. It was a major blow when director Norman Jewison cast the Israeli actor Topol as Tevye in his movie adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof (1971), passing over the legend who had created the role. Topol got an Oscar nomination, but faded quickly out of American movies. The movie of “Fiddler,” a huge roadshow hit in 1971, also faded out of American consciousness. One wonders if with Zero in the role, the movie would now be considered a classic and constantly revived on television.
In 1974, Zero reprised his Leopold Bloom in a Broadway production of “Ulysses in Nighttown,” again directed by Burgess Meredith, which netted him a Tony Award nomination as Best Actor in a Play. He turned in an affecting performance as a blacklisted comedian in Martin Ritt’s movie about the blacklist, The Front (1976). He also had a success with a Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” in December 1976.
Zero was cast as Shylock in Arnold Wesker’s “The Merchant,” a pro-Jewish reimagining of ‘William Shakespeare”s “The Merchant of Venice.” Mostel had great hopes that his Shylock would be the crowning achievement of his career and put him back on top. His huge talent and larger-than-life persona seemed to do better on stage.
This was not to come to pass. He fell ill after a tryout performance in Philadelphia in September and was hospitalized. On September 8, 1977, Zero Mostel died from an aortic aneurysm at the age of sixty-two. One of the greatest, most unique, and definitely irreplaceable talents to grace the American stage and movies had passed away. We are unlikely to look on his likes again.
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