ZERO MOSTEL Biography - Actors and Actresses


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Name: Zero Mostel                                                                         
Birth name: Samuel Joel Mostel                                                           
Born: 28 February 1915 Brooklyn, New York                                                 
Died: 8 September 1977 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania                                         
Zero Mostel (February 28, 1915 - September 8, 1977) was a Brooklyn-born stage             
and film actor best known for his portrayal of comic characters such as Tevye in         
Fiddler on the Roof, Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,         
and Max Bialystock in The Producers. He was blacklisted during the 1950s, and             
his testimony before HUAC was well-publicized. He was a Tony Award and Obie               
Award winner.                                                                             
Mostel was born as Samuel Joel Mostel to Israel Mostel, an Eastern European Jew,         
and Cina (Celia), nee Druchs, also from a Jewish family, who was born in Poland           
and raised in Vienna. The two immigrated to the United States (separately:               
Israel in 1898 and Cina in 1908), where they met and married. Israel already had         
four children from his first wife; he had four more children with Cina. Samuel,           
later known as Zero, was Israel's seventh child.                                         
Initially living in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, the family moved to             
Moodus, Connecticut, where they bought a farm. The family's income in those days         
came from a winery and a slaughterhouse. The farm did not do well. When,                 
according to Zero, an unyielding bank president with fierce mustache and long             
whip foreclosed the mortgage on the farm, the ten Mostels trekked back to New             
York and settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where the boy attended             
public school, his character was shaped, and his father was employed as a wine           
chemist. While not at poverty level, the family had to struggle financially. As           
a child, Mostel was described by his family as outgoing and lively, and with a           
developed sense of humor. He showed an intelligence and perception that                   
convinced his father he had the makings of a rabbi; however, Mostel preferred             
painting and drawing, a passion he was to retain for life. According to Roger             
Butterfield, his mother made a practice of dressing the boy in a velvet suit and         
sending him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to copy masterpieces. Zero had a           
favorite painting, John White Alexander's Study For Woman in Black and Green,             
which he copied every day, to the delight of the gallery crowds. One afternoon,           
while a crowd was watching over his velvet-clad shoulder, he solemnly copied the         
whole painting upside down, delighting his audience.                                     
Already at a young age he developed the duality of character that baffled                 
critics years later: when alone he was studious and quiet, but when observed he           
felt he had to be the center of attention, which he invariably did through use           
of humor. The fact that at home he spoke English, Yiddish, Italian and German             
helped him reach out to audiences of many ethnicities in New York.                       
He attended Public School 188, where he had been an A student (this is in                 
contrast to his later claim that he was nicknamed Zero after his grade average).         
He also received professional training as a painter through The Educational               
Alliance. He completed his high school education at Seward Park High, where,             
interestingly, his yearbook voiced the following prophesy: A future Rembrandt             
or perhaps a comedian?                                                                   
Mostel attended the City College of New York, a public college that allowed many         
poor students to pursue higher education.                                                 
As only beginner classes were available in art, Zero took them repeatedly to be           
able to paint and receive professional feedback. During that time he worked odd           
jobs, and graduated in 1935 with a bachelor's degree. He then continued studying         
towards a masters in arts, and also joined the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP),       
which paid him a stipend to teach art.                                                   
In 1939 he married Clara Sverd, and the couple moved to an apartment in Brooklyn.         
The marriage did not last, however, since Clara could not accept the many hours           
Mostel spent in his studio with his fellow artists, and he did not seem to be             
able to provide for her at the level she had been accustomed to. They separated           
in 1941 and divorced in 1945.                                                             
Part of Mostel's PWAP duty was to give gallery talks at New York's museums.               
Leading groups of students through the many paintings, Mostel could not suppress         
his comedic nature, and his lectures became famous not so much for their                 
artistic content as for his sense of humor. As his reputation grew, he was               
invited to entertain at parties and other social occasions, earning three to             
five dollars per performance. Labor Union Social Clubs followed, where Mostel             
mixed his comic routine with social commentary. These performances would play a           
large role in his eventual blacklisting in the next decade.                               
In 1941, the Cafe Society a downtown Manhattan nightclub approached Mostel with           
an offer to become a professional comedian and play a regular spot. Mostel               
accepted, and in the next few months he became the Cafe Society's main                   
attraction. It was at the Cafe Society that he adapted the stage name Zero (Zee           
to his friends). The press agent of the night club prevailed upon Mostel to               
adopt this stage name, hoping that it would inspire the comment: Here's a man             
who made something out of nothing. Thus, at the age of 27, Mostel dropped every           
other job and occupation to start his show business career.