Zero Mostel

It’s my birthday today but that isn’t important. I’ve always been more interested about the historical events that have taken place on my birthday. The first part of Tom Baker’s last ever Dr Who story – Logopolis. Number 1 in the charts was “Shaddupa Your Face” by the Joe Dolce Music Theatre. Also I share my birthday with two people I admire greatly – Barry McGuigan and one of the most singular (and very possibly dangerous) actors of all time – Zero Mostel.

Today would have marked his 100th birthday. His most famous role is as Max Bialystock in The Producers. However there are other films you should certainly check out. Panic in the Streets one of his earliest films in which he is a gangster infected with pneumonic plague being pursued through New Orleans! Running with fellow infected mobster Jack Palance, being chased Richard Widmark – all directed by Elia Kazan.

Also his second pairing with Gene Wilder in a film version of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros . It is a peculiar film (attempting to film anything by Ionesco is akin to trying to film Alan Moore) and Mostel also didn’t require make-up for his transformation into a rhino. He made great use of his physical presence and high energy.

Zero was also blacklisted during the McCarthy era which is one reason why his filmography is nowhere near as long as you’d imagine it could. I can’t do him justice in a blog. The best thing to do is go and watch him. A genuine force of nature. The closest I’ve seen in writing to summing him up was by Stella Adler. She wrote in The Art of Acting (talking about her use of animal exercises in training actors):

“As an animal, you must know who you are but not how you’ll react. Being an animal teaches you about spontaneity. If you’re scared, do something. If you’re hungry, do something. Always be specific, never general, and do everything to the maximum. That’s why it’s dangerous to be on stage with an animal –  they always do things to the maximum.

The same was true of Zero Mostel. That’s why I used to warn my students to never get on a stage with an animal, a child or Zero Mostel.” 

High praise indeed!