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Zero Mostel, byname of Samuel Joel Mostel, (born February 28, 1915, Brooklyn, New York, U.S.—died September 8, 1977, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), American actor, singer, and artist who was best known for his physically and emotionally expressive comedic acting. He appeared on the stage, in movies, and on television but won his greatest acclaim in theatre.
Mostel grew up in New York City and Connecticut. He aspired to be an artistfrom an early age. After graduating (1935) from the City College of New York, he briefly studied art at New York University. He took various jobs, including teaching art, while pursuing a career as a serious painter. Mostel gave entertaining art lectures at various museums, which led to invitations to entertain at parties. He made his nightclub debut in 1942, and that year he also appeared in his first Broadway production, the comedy Cafe Crown. This was followed by other stage appearances, radio work, and his first film role, in the musical comedy Du Barry Was a Lady (1943).
After briefly serving in the armed forces during World War II, Mostel resumed his acting career, appearing on Broadway in Concert Varieties (1945) and Beggar’s Holiday (1946–47). He also became a dramatic film actor. He played a thug in Elia Kazan’s thriller Panic in the Streets (1950) and later was cast in The Enforcer and Sirocco (both 1951). He also performed in the Broadway drama Flight into Egypt (1952) under Kazan’s direction. Mostel’s career was suspended, however, because his support for leftist causes led to rumours that he was a member of the Communist Party. His refusal to cooperate during an appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955 kept him on the Hollywood blacklist.
Theatre remained open to Mostel, however, and in 1958 he earned acclaim and an Obie Award for his performance as Leopold Bloom in the Off-Broadway play Ulysses in Nighttown, based on an episode in James Joyce’s Ulysses. He played a man who gradually becomes a rhinoceros in the 1961 Broadway production of Rhinoceros by Eugène Ionesco, and his transformation brought him a Tony Award. This was followed in 1962 by the lead role in the successful musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a performance that earned him a second Tony Award. Mostel’s greatest triumph was his indelible creation of the role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof in 1964. He won a third Tony, and later actors in the part based their performances on his.
These successes brought Mostel once more into motion-picture work, first with a reprise of A Funny Thing (1966). His best-known film performance was as the amoral Max Bialystock in the Mel Brooks comedy The Producers (1968). His later movies included The Great Bank Robbery (1969), Once Upon a Scoundrel (1973), and Rhinoceros (1974). He also played a major role in The Front (1976), a serious film about the blacklisting era in Hollywood, and he returned to Broadway in revivals of Ulysses in Nighttown (1974) and Fiddler on the Roof (1976–77). Mostel continued to paint throughout his career.