LIANE HANSEN, host:
The tumultuous life of the late actor Zero Mostel is the subject of a new one-man play now onstage in Los Angeles. Mostel starred in the originally 1964 production of Fiddler on the Roof. He won a Tony Award for that role and two more for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Eugene Ionesco's drama Rhinoceros. Mostel also starred in films and on TV, despite a career hampered by being blacklisted in the 1950's and a personality that some called volcanic. Iris Mann reports on Mostel's life as presented in the play Zero Hour.
IRIS MANN reporting:
Jim Brochu, who wrote and stars in Zero Hour, remembers seeing Mostel for the first time.
Mr. JIM BROCHU (Actor): I did not who he was and I sat down at the Alvin Theater and this presence burst through curtain. I mean, you actually went back in your seat. And I can't remember laughing as hard at any of the great comedians I had known, like Gleason or Phil Silvers, who I had seen both of them on stage. None of them was this force of nature.
MANN: The play was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Mostel reprised his role in the film version.
(Soundbite of movie A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum)
Mr. ZERO MOSTEL (Actor): And finally, the house of Senex, who lives here with his wife and son. Also in this house dwells Pseudolus, slave to her son. Pseudolus is probably my favorite character in the piece, a role of enormous variety and nuance and played by an actor of such versatility, such magnificent dreams, such - let me put it this way. I play the part.
MANN: Three years after the movie came out, Jim Brochu was performing in New York and the Times reviewer suggested the actor would make a perfect Zero Mostel. The seed was planted. Brochu went on to a successful career on and off Broadway and on television.
Last year he was working in another play and began writing Zero Hour during intermissions. He drew on some of his own memories, including going backstage after he'd see Mostel perform that first time.
Mr. BROCHU: I went down and Zero was outside of his dressing room reading the Riot Act to one of the other actors. The actor had upstaged him or done something. He was screaming at this actor and finished with, Now never do it again! The actor walked away and he looked at me and said, Well, hello!. How are you? Come visit me.
MANN: Brochu described Zero as a mass of contradictions: gracious yet narcissistic, introspective yet given to explosions. Zero Hour presents Mostel through an interview with an unseen reporter. In it, Brochu's Mostel defends one of his most notorious quirks, embellishing roles.
Mr. MOSTEL: You know what makes me angry? When I hear, oh, Mostel doesn't stick to the script. That's absurd. I've always said every word the author wrote. I never changed a comma. I might add something once in a while to enhance the moment and I know people resented my spontaneity, but the audience didn't. But I'm not an actor who can do it in a monotone all the time. A musician plays Beethoven. He has the score in front of him. He hits every note as written, but does it come out exactly the same? No. He's not a metronome.
MANN: In one famous incident, Mostel announced the result of the Sunny Liston/Floyd Patterson fight during the prologue of Forum. But Zero Hour also explores Mostel's personal tribulations. In 1960, he almost lost his leg after a bus accident. For the rest of his life, he endured great pain. Paul Kreppel directed Zero Hour. He also knew Mostel and remembers seeing him play the demanding role of Tevya in a theater in the round production of Fiddler on the Roof.
Mr. PAUL KREPPEL (Director): He had been on stage for two hours. The doctors pretty much told him that he couldn't walk for more than two hours a day, and when you watched him on stage, he was lighter than air, filled with helium. And to know that he had to use a cane to walk when he wasn't on the stage, it's amazing.
MANN: Whenever Zero Mostel was working, nothing got in his way, says Larry Gelbart, who co-wrote the script of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Mr. LARRY GELBART (Writer): I think Zero would - had he lost his leg, would have grown another one. I mean, he - the man was really a super survivor.
MANN: Zero Mostel had to survive another obstacle. Even before the bus accident, he faced the Blacklist. He was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. During his sometimes acerbic testimony, in which he referred to 20th Century Fox as 18th Century Fox, Mostel took the Fifth. As a result, he barely worked as an actor for nearly a decade.
Mr. BROCHU (As Zero Mostel): That time in America can not be forgotten because it was the subtlest and most insidious of all exterminations. They said they were trying to eradicate communists, but communist equal liberal and liberal equaled Jew. And if you were a Jewish writer or director, you had influence. Your thoughts got out to the general public. They weren't going after the little tailors or the kosher butchers, because their words never went further than their front counter. They wanted the artists...
MANN: In the play the character of Mostel singles out director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, who named many of the actor's friends. In 1962, after the blacklist had relaxed and Zero was starring in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, producer Hal Prince wanted to bring Robbins in to doctor the show. Writer Larry Gelbart told Prince he'd better clear it with Mostel.
Mr. GELBART: Zero's first reaction was, do I have to have coffee with him? Meaning Robbins and meaning, you know, do I have to have any social contact with him whatsoever. And he assured him he would not, and then Zero said the left doesn't boycott or blacklist. There was no coffee. There was no tea. There was no let's kiss and make up. There was only room for work.
MANN: And Gelbart says Mostel worked hard. He'd do anything for a laugh, even at the expense of his fellow actors. Gelbart recalls that there was scene in Forum during which actor Jack Gilford, one of Mostel's closest friends, was pretending to be a dead woman. The veil covering Gilford's face would fly up with a burst of breath whenever his character heard something upsetting.
Mr. GELBART: Zero is meant to stuff the veil down. Just put it back on his face. Zero took to sticking it into Jack's mouth, the veil. And by the time Zero left the show, the roof of Jack's mouth needed complete re-roofing because it had been rubbed raw by Zero's fingers and fingernails. He didn't much care. He was getting laughs sticking his fingers in his mouth and he would have stuck his fingers anywhere if that got a laugh too. You know?
MANN: Yet Jim Brochu depicts Mostel as man who was more than ambition and bombast.
Mr. BROCHU: At one point in the play, I say, I've had a thousand doors shut in my face and I pound and I scratch and I scream and I say, Let me in. Mostel is here, son of Israel and Sina(ph). Why would you exclude the life of the party? And then the door opens and I don't really want to go in. He once said he was a spoiled child who was screaming for attention and yet he was a scared child, afraid to go into the light.
MANN: Writer and actor Jim Brochu. Zero Mostel died suddenly in 1977 at the age of 62. After seeing the play Zero Hour, performer Theodore Bikel sent Brochu a letter that said in closing, Thank you for bringing back a volcano that we thought was long extinct. For NPR News, I'm Iris Mann.