If I were a rich man

Born on February 28th, 1915 in Brooklyn, NY and raised in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Samuel Joel (better known as “Zero”) Mostel was one of eight children. He would later come to be known as one of Broadway’s more famous actors.

So You Wanna be an Artist?

As a child, Sammy,(not yet “Zero”) displayed a penchant for art and had all intentions of becoming a painter. He fine tuned his talents by going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and copying the paintings that he saw. He also attended a Jewish institution that went by the name of the Educational Alliance. They specialized in the fine arts and were designed for the purpose of providing “cultural enrichment” to their students. After his graduation from high school, he attended the City College of New York and upon his graduation in 1935, he enrolled at New York University (NYU) where he pursued his quest for a master’s degree. The pursuit didn’t last too long, he dropped out after only about a year and filled his time doing odd jobs around the city. In 1937 he joined a program called the Federal Arts Project that was set up during the Great Depression under Franklin D. Roosevelt .He eventually began to teach art and it was under this guise that he got his first big break

From Artist to Actor

As we enter the 1940’s, Sammy (still not yet “Zero”) continued at his teaching duties but also took on some other work on behalf of the Works Progress Administration. It was here that I guess you can say that he began to be “discovered”. One of his duties for the WPA was to provide lectures at various galleries and museums around the city. It was in this role that he displayed a talent for improvisation and often interjected humor and jokes into these “lectures”. Word of mouth began to spread about his talents as a comedian and he was soon taking jobs at private parties about town.. Based upon his success, he got up the nerve to audition at a Manhattan nightclub that went by the name of Café’s Society Downtown. His audition was not what one might call a success. He was originally turned by the club’s owner on the basis that his comedic styling did not fit in the with atmosphere of jazz that the club was trying to promote. With the advent of World War II and the subsequent drop in available talent, the club owner had a change of heart. He felt that the audience could use a break from the bad news coming out of Europe and Japan and that comedy could be the answer. This is also when Sammy officially became “Zero”. The club’s press agent had this to say about Mostel, “After all, here's a guy who's starting from nothing."

In mid February of 1942, Zero debuted at Café Society. Both the critics and the public liked what they saw and his reputation as a comedian began to grow. He also took his act on the road and performed at nightclubs across the country. After about a year he also began working on Broadway and doing a brief stint on radio

His career was momentarily interrupted by a brief stint in the Army in 1943 but he was soon discharged due to an “unspecified physical disability.” It’s more likely that he was discharged because of his liberal slant on politics. (More on that to follow). Anyway, after his discharge he honed his talents by still providing entertainment to American troops stationed overseas.

Following the war, Zero kept doing his comedy routine but also began to expand his talents by trying his hand at “serious” acting. He performed in plays such as Beggar’s Holiday and in the film Panic in the Streets. The birth of television also gave him another outlet in which to display his talents.

From Actor to “Communist

It was because the satirical nature and content of his nightclub routine and subsequent contributions to progressive causes, that Zero caught the attention of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). When called to testify in front of the committee, he denied being a Communist. However when he was asked to “name names” refused and was subsequently blacklisted for most of the 1950's. He managed to earn a living by falling back on his talents as a painter and appearing every now and then in small nightclubs.

And Back Again

As the 1950’s were coming to a close and the fear over the threat of Communism began to subside, Zero’s career began to show signs of life. His buddy, Burgess Meredith, (yes, Rocky’s trainer and the esteemed Penguin from the TV show Batman) was directing an Off-Broadway production of a play called Ulysses in Nighttown and asked Mostel if he was interested in playing the lead role. Zero took the part and eventually won an Obie award for his performance. The play was also performed in London and Paris and Mostel earned rave reviews for his performance. Towards the end of 1959, his appearances on television began to increase and he was cast as the lead part in an upcoming Broadway production to be called “The Good Soup”.

Just When Things Were Looking Up

He got hit by a bus. Literally. He stepped off a curb and bus plowed into him causing such severe damage to his left leg that amputation was a strong possibility. The accident caused him to remain hospitalized for over five months and during that time he underwent four surgeries to repair his leg. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise, by the time he was discharged from the hospital, the play “The Good Soup” apparently wasn’t such a good play and had already closed.

They Say the Neon Lights Shine Bright

In the fall of 1960, Broadway came calling again. He starred in the Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and his performance landed him a Tony Award. Following that he won Tony Awards for his performance in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and probably his best-known role in Fiddler on the Roof.

The Final Curtain

Following his success on Broadway, Zero turned his attention to movies and television. But by the time 1975 rolled around, his career was fading fast. . He gave a memorable performance in a topic that was close to his heart. The movie was called The Front and it was the first Hollywood film that dealt with the subject of blacklisting. He then went on to perform in a Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof. In 1977, he was preparing for the role of Shylock in a version of William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. After giving a try out performance in Philadelphia in September, he became ill and required hospitalization. On September 8th, Zero Mostel was dead at the rather young age of 62 from an aortic aneurysm.

Theater Credits

Cafe Crown, - Directed by Elia Kazan. Opens January 23, 1942
Keep 'Em Laughing- a vaudeville production Opens April 24, 1942
Concert Varieties-"an entertainment", choreographed by Jerome Robbins Opens June 1, 1945
The Milky Way- a comedy, summer theater, opens 1945 .
Beggar's Holiday- a musical, music by Duke Ellington, Opens December 26, 1946, also known as Twilight Alley.
The Imaginary Invalid and The Doctor in Spite of Himself - a pair of Moliere comedies, The two productions take place between 1949 and 1951.
Flight Into Egypt, directed by Elia Kazan. Opens March 18, 1952
A Stone for Danny Fisher, adapted from a novel by Harold Robbins. Opens October 21, 1954.
Once Over Lightly, a revue, produced and performed by blacklisted artists. Opens March 1955
The Good Woman of Setzuan,, a Bertolt Brecht play. Opens December 18, 1956.
Good as Gold, a comedy. Opens March 7, 1957.
Ulysses in Nighttown, adapted from James Joyce's Ulysses .with Burgess Meredith. Mostel wins an Obie for his performance.
Rhinoceros, Eugene Ionesco's play. Mostel wins his first Tony Award, Opens January 9, 1961.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Mostel wins his second Tony. Opens May 8, 1962.
Fiddler on the Roof, a musical, probably the work he is best known for. Mostel wins his third and final Tony. Opens September 22, 1964.
The Latent Heterosexual, a comedy by Paddy Chayefsky Opens April of 1968.

Film Credits

DuBarry Was a Lady. with songs by Cole Porter. Released August, 1943.
Panic in the Streets. Directed by Elia Kazan. Released September, 1950.
The Enforcer. Cast includes Humphrey Bogart, Released January, 1951.
Sirocco. Released July, 1951.
Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell. Released July, 1951.
The Guy Who Came Back. Released August, 1951.
The Model and the Marriage Broker. Released January, 1952.
Zero. Screenplay by Samuel Beckett, This film was supposed to be released as part of a trilogy. It was screened by itself at the Venice Film Festival in 1960, but there is no record of an official release.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Released October, 1966.
The Producers. Screenplay and Direction by Mel Brooks. Released March, 1968.
Great Catherine. based on a George Bernard Shaw one-act play. Released January, 1969. .
The Great Bank Robbery. Released September, 1969.
The Angel Levine , based on a story by Bernard Malamud.. Released July, 1970. Mastermind. A May 1970 release date was planned, but the film was never released in theatres; it was released on home video in 1999.
The Hot Rock. Cast includes Robert Redford. Released March, 1972.
Once Upon a Scoundrel. The film was never officially released, though screened at the 2nd Thessaloniki International Film Festival on October 30, 1973, and at the Fairfax Theatre in Los Angeles during "Zero Mostel Week" in March 1980. 90 minutes.
Marco. Released December, 1973.
Rhinoceros. from the play by Eugene Ionesco.. Released in early 1974.
Foreplay, also Four Play, also The President's Women. Released March, 1975.
Journey into Fear.. Limited release in 1975.
The Front. Cast includes Woody Allen,. Released October, 1976.
Watership Down. Animated cartoon Released November 1978.

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