On this day: Zero Mostel is born

February 28 1915: An award-winning actor and artist

By Jennifer Lipman, February 28, 2011

The Broadway comedian was born Sam Joel in Brooklyn to Orthodox parents and spent his childhood learning at a yeshiva school, but chose to enter showbiz and change his name to Zero rather than follow in the family footsteps.

By the time he died, at the age of 62, he had worked with stars including Elia Kazan, won three Tony awards and, of course, captivated audiences as the original Tevye in the stage version of Fiddler on the Roof.

His start in the entertainment industry came when he was working as an art teacher for the Public Works of Art Project during the late 1930s. His students became accustomed to his comedic teaching style, and in 1941, when he was 27, he was given a comedy slot at a New York nightclub.

He soon gained work on the radio and on Broadway, but his rise was interrupted two years later when he was drafted into the US army during the Second World War. Still, after the war he returned to the stage and screen, in his own live television comedy series.

Mostel’s career was again halted in the 1950s, this time by the anti-communist Red Scare. Placed on one of Joe McCarthy’s blacklists, between 1951 and 1959 he did not appear on screen at all. But he never lost his sense of humour – during his testimony to the Hosue on UnAmerican Activities committee, he discussed imitating a “butterfly at rest” and told his interrogator: “There is no crime in making anybody laugh”.

In 1968 Mel Brooks convinced Mostel to take what was perhaps his most famous role, Max Bialystock in The Producers. He was to play a modern version of Shylock in Arnold Wesker’s reimagining of The Merchant of Venice when he died.

What the JC said: A hippie Hitler surrounded by jackbooted chorus girls is one of the bright ideas in...one of the zaniest screen comedies in years. Starring the lumbering Zero Mostel, who can stretch his face is more directions at once then anyone I know, it tells how a failed Broadway impresario hits on a devious way of restoring his fortunes

See more from the JC archives here.

Last updated: 8:45am, February 28 2011