Born this day in 1915, Zero Mostel rose to comedic heights in Mel Brooks’ “The Producers.” But 1950s anti-Communist fervor almost derailed his career before it really began…
Zero Mostel is remembered as one of the great stage and screen comedians of the 1960s, shaping the characters of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and playing Max Bialystock in the Mel Brooks cult classic The Producers. But it almost didn’t happen. Mostel’s career nearly fizzled before it ever got going, thanks to the House Un-American Activities Committee and its anti-Communist fervor.
Born on February 28, 1915, in Brooklyn, Mostel wasn’t originally drawn to acting and comedy. His first passion was art, and as a young boy he would go daily to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and copy its masterpieces. Crowds would gather to watch him work, impressed by his skill – his first audiences may have given him a taste for the spotlight. But neither his audience nor his later class-clown status at City College of New York dissuaded him from studying art. He continued to paint, and after graduation, began teaching art and giving gallery talks at New York art museums.
With that gig, his future career became clear. Lecture audiences loved the humor he sprinkled in, and he began receiving invitations to perform as a comedian. He performed both in nightclubs and to groups with a liberal slant – the social clubs of labor unions, and New York’s integrated nightclub Café Society, where left-leaning Mostel worked social commentary into his comic routines. In his personal life, too, he made no secret of his political views, attending Communist Party meetings and performing at a benefit for American Youth for Democracy (a recent renaming of the Young Communist League USA).
As the House Un-American Activities Committee began investigating suspected Communists and Communist sympathizers in the late 1940s, Mostel started to incorporate jokes at their expense. He made fun of the committee’s red-baiting and perfected a pompous senator character. It didn’t make him any friends on the committee, which became increasingly serious in its investigations of celebrities with suspected ties to the Communist Party.
Those ties could be legitimate, like Communist Party membership or attending meetings, or they could be a lot more tenuous – involvement in liberal causes, friendship with someone tied to the Party, or even just being named by someone else trying save their own skin. Going before HUAC usually resulted in one of two outcomes: being deemed a Communist and blacklisted – prevented entirely from working in Hollywood – or naming names of other suspected Communists and therefore getting to continue working.
Given Mostel’s unashamed involvement in the Communist Party and other liberal causes, it was no surprise that his name came up in the testimony of choreographer Jerome Robbins, who was pressured by HUAC to name names in a bid to keep the committee from exposing his homosexuality. Robbins got to keep working in showbiz, though he lived the rest of his life with deep shame over his actions before HUAC. Mostel, on the other hand, was called before HUAC with disastrous results.
A comedian to the bone, Mostel began by hitting the committee with jokes. Although he had many of its members laughing, it didn’t work in his favor. The committee could enjoy a performer’s skills and then turn around and blacklist him without batting an eye… and that’s exactly what they did to Mostel. He was totally upfront about his own liberal activities, and he absolutely refused to name names: a combination that spelled the HUAC kiss of death.
Although HUAC always maintained that the blacklist didn’t exist, and there was no official written record of it (“There is no blacklist, but you are on it,” one filmmaker’s agent was reported to have said), once you were condemned by HUAC, you were out of work in Hollywood. Mostel’s movie career had been slowly growing in the 1940s, but it screeched to a halt in the 50s. Scraping by with virtually no income for himself and his family, he later claimed to have enjoyed those years, as they gave him time to work on his painting again.
But when the opportunity arose to act on Broadway – which wasn’t governed by Hollywood’s blacklist – he took it. An Off-Off-Broadway role in Ulysses in Nighttown led to a favorable review in Newsweek and an Obie Award, which led to a small role in Broadway’s Rhinoceros, which led to a Tony award… and suddenly, just as the blacklist was beginning to crumble in the late 50s and early 60s, Mostel’s career was back. It was soon to be stronger than ever.
Zero Mostel in 1958, photographed by Carl Van Vechten
In 1962, Mostel’s had the chance for a truly triumphant return when he was offered the lead role of Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. But if he wanted the role, he would have to face a past antagonist – Jerome Robbins, namer of Mostel’s name, was choreographing the show. Producer Harold Prince knew this history, and he apprehensively asked Mostel if he’d be willing to work with Robbins. “Of course I’ll work with him. We of the left do not blacklist,” Mostel replied.
Mostel’s good nature helped him make the right decision – the show won him another Tony, and just two years later, he was ready to win yet another one for his work in Fiddler on the Roof (also choreographed by Robbins). His star turn as Tevye even brought him an invitation to the White House, signaling the end of his political exile. It was underscored further four years later, when the film world again embraced Mostel as he starred in The Producers. A decade and a half after being tossed from Hollywood’s halls, he was back.
Zero Mostel (and his spectacular comb-over) in The Producers
Before his death on September 8, 1977, Zero Mostel acted in over a dozen more films, starred in revivals of Fiddler and Ulysses in Nighttown, and even guest starred on The Muppet Show.
In a final remembrance of the dark days of the HUAC blacklist, one of Mostel’s last films was 1976’s The Front, a fictional account of a restaurant cashier who agrees to submit scripts on behalf of blacklisted screenwriters. Playing a blacklisted comedian who spirals into despair and ultimately death, Mostel revisited a painful time – and he helped ensure the lessons of that time won’t be forgotten.