Mostel was born as Samuel Joel Mostel to Israel Mostel, an Eastern European Jew, and Cina "Celia" Druchs, also from a Jewish family, who was born in Poland and raised in Vienna. The two immigrated to the United States (separately: Israel in 1898 and Cina in 1908), where they met and married. Israel already had four children from his first wife; he had four more children with Cina. Samuel, later known as Zero, was Israel's seventh child.
Initially living in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, the family moved to Moodus, Connecticut, where they bought a farm. The family’s income in those days came from a winery and a slaughterhouse. The farm did not do well. When, according to Zero, an unyielding bank president with fierce mustache and long whip foreclosed the mortgage on the farm, the ten Mostels trekked back to New York and settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where the boy attended public school, his character was shaped, and his father was employed as a wine chemist. While not at poverty level, the family had to struggle financially. As a child, Mostel was described by his family as outgoing and lively, and with a developed sense of humor. He showed an intelligence and perception that convinced his father he had the makings of a rabbi; however, Mostel preferred painting and drawing, a passion he was to retain for life. According to Roger Butterfield, his mother made a practice of dressing the boy in a velvet suit and sending him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to copy masterpieces. Zero had a favorite painting, John White Alexander’s Study For Woman in Black and Green, which he copied every day, to the delight of the gallery crowds. One afternoon, while a crowd was watching over his velvet-clad shoulder, he solemnly copied the whole painting upside down, delighting his audience.
Already at a young age he developed the duality of character that baffled critics years later: when alone he was studious and quiet, but when observed he felt he had to be the center of attention, which he invariably did through use of humor. The fact that at home he spoke English, Yiddish, Italian and German helped him reach out to audiences of many ethnicities in New York.
He attended Public School 188, where he had been an A student (this is in contrast to his later claim that he was nicknamed Zero after his grade average). He also received professional training as a painter through The Educational Alliance. He completed his high school education at Seward Park High, where, interestingly, his yearbook voiced the following prophesy: “A future Rembrandt… or perhaps a comedian?”
Mostel attended the City College of New York, a public college that allowed many poor students to pursue higher education. Mostel belonged to the swimming team and the R.O.T.C., where he distinguished himself by clowning. The story goes that at the College’s Charter Day exercises, the R.O.T.C. unit held a review in honor of the occasion. When he was commanded by the captain to stand at attention, the future comedian “started to crumple like an airless accordion.” “Attention!” barked the officer, “not at ease.” “Mon capitaine,” Zero replied, “it’s not me at ease, it’s my uniform.” Legend also has it that the R.O.T.C. situation became so critical that on inspection days the staff officers tried to get the youth out of sight. They attempted to detail him on special duty. “Private Mostel, would you be so good as to go to the gymnasium with a message for Corporal S?” they would demand uneasily. “I gotta drill,” Zero, professing not to understand, is supposed to have said. “But we excuse you from drill,” pleaded the staff. “I gotta drill,” persisted Zero. “I gotta get hard. I gotta get strong. I gotta get ready to die for dear old City College.” 
As only beginner classes were available in art, Zero took them repeatedly to be able to paint and receive professional feedback. During that time he worked odd jobs, and graduated in 1935 with a bachelor’s degree. He then continued studying towards a masters in arts, and also joined the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), which paid him a stipend to teach art.
In 1939 he married Clara Sverd, and the couple moved to an apartment in Brooklyn. The marriage did not last, however, since Clara could not accept the many hours Mostel spent in his studio with his fellow artists, and he did not seem to be able to provide for her at the level she had been accustomed to. They separated in 1941 and divorced in 1944, Clara only agreeing to the divorce in return for a percentage of Mostel's earnings for the rest of his life.
Early comic routines
Part of Mostel’s PWAP duty was to give gallery talks at New York’s museums. Leading groups of students through the many paintings, Mostel could not suppress his comedic nature, and his lectures became famous not so much for their artistic content as for his sense of humor. As his reputation grew, he was invited to entertain at parties and other social occasions, earning three to five dollars per performance. Labor Union Social Clubs followed, where Mostel mixed his comic routine with social commentary. These performances would play a large role in his eventual blacklisting in the next decade.
In 1941, the Café Society—a downtown Manhattan nightclub—approached Mostel with an offer to become a professional comedian and play a regular spot. Mostel accepted, and in the next few months he became the Café Society’s main attraction. It was at the Café Society that he adopted the stage name Zero (Zee to his friends). The press agent of the night club prevailed upon Mostel to adopt this stage name, hoping that it would inspire the comment: “Here’s a man who made something out of nothing.” Thus, at the age of 27, Mostel dropped every other job and occupation to start his show business career.
Mostel’s rise from this point on was rapid. In 1942 alone his salary at the Café Society went up from US$40 a week to US$450; he appeared on radio shows, opened in two Broadway shows (Keep Them Laughing, Top-Notchers), played at the Paramount Theatre, appeared in an MGM movie (Du Barry Was a Lady), and booked into La Martinique at US$4,000 a week. He also made cameo appearances at the Yiddish theatre, which style influenced his own. In 1943, Life Magazine described him as “just about the funniest American now living.”
In March 1943, Mostel was drafted by the Army. His length of service is hard to determine as conflicting accounts exist—some say that he was released after six months due to colitis, others that he served to the end of the war. At any rate it is apparent that he was honorably discharged and gave the troops many months of free entertainment through the USO until 1945.
Mostel married Kathryn (Kate) Cecilia Harkin, a Chez Paree club chorus girl, on July 2, 1944, after two years of courtship. The marriage was shaky at times, again mostly due to Mostel’s spending most of his time in his art studio. Their relationship was described by friends of the family as complicated, with many fights but mutual adoration. The couple stayed together until Mostel’s death and had two children: film actor Joshua (Josh) in 1946 and Tobias (Toby) in 1948.
After Mostel’s discharge from the army, his career took off again. He appeared in a series of plays, musicals, operas and movies. In 1946 he even made an attempt at serious operatic acting (in The Beggar's Opera), but received lukewarm reviews. Critics saw him as a versatile performer, who was equally adept at a Molière play as he was on the stage of a night club.
Meanwhile, the choice of political causes Mostel was supporting earned him surveillance by the FBI. According to his FBI file, he was seen at many Communist Party meetings in 1941 and was active in support of Free Earl Browder Movement.
Blacklist years and HUAC testimony
With growing popularity and many excellent reviews, Mostel’s career nonetheless came to a complete halt during the 1950s. Seeing many of his show business friends blacklisted and forced to name names of supposed Communists, it came as no surprise to him that he was named, too. On January 29, 1952, Martin Berkeley identified him to the House Committee on Un-American Activities as having been a member of the Communist party (Berkeley had named 160 people in all—more than any other witness). This was enough to stifle Mostel’s career even before he was subpoenaed to appear before HUAC, which happened on August 14, 1955.
The committee was presided over by chairman Clyde Doyle. Mostel, who could not afford to hire a lawyer, testified before the committee on his own. Frank Wilkinson recalled the proceedings thusly:
It began with the committee’s counsel immediately launching his attack. “Mr. Mostel, are you or are you not a Communist?” Zero leaped out of his chair behind the counsel’s table, knocking the microphones to the floor, and reached for the throat of HUAC’s attorney while shouting, “That man called me a Communist! Get him out of here! He asked me if I’m a Communist! Get him out of here!” The committee was roaring with laughter. They were delighted. Here they had Zero Mostel all to themselves, on stage, in a private dining room. Zero went on playing and parlaying with them for at least twenty minutes, responding to their questions by reciting each amendment in the Bill of Rights. Finally, HUAC’s lawyers cautiously said, “Mr. Mostel, we know all about those amendments. We simply want to know are you, or are you not, claiming the Fifth Amendment.” He didn’t ask Zero, “Are you or are you not a Communist.” He asked him, “Are you or are you not claiming the Fifth Amendment.” What they wanted him to say was “Yes.” After another ten minutes of sparring, Zero said, “Yes, I’m claiming the Fifth Amendment.” The hearings were stopped right there. The committee’s PR guy goes to the door and opens it. He doesn’t say a word to the crowd of reporters. He just holds up five fingers, and the press dashes off to the telephones there in the hotel. The headlines the next morning: “Zero Mostel Pleads Fifth Amendment at HUAC Meeting.”
Thus Mostel refused the opportunity to redeem himself by giving the committee more names, choosing instead not to answer any question that may incriminate himself (a direct refusal to name names would have allowed the committee to find him in contempt). His testimony had won him admiration in the blacklisted community, as in addition to not naming names he also confronted the committee on ideological matters, something that was rarely done. Among other things, he referred to Twentieth Century Fox as “Eighteenth Century Fox” (due to their collaboration with the committee), and manipulated the committee members to appear foolish.
Segment of Zero Mostel’s testimony before HUACThe admiration he received for his testimony did nothing to take him out of the blacklist, however, and the family had to struggle throughout the 1950s with little income. Mostel used this time to work in his studio. Later he would say that he cherished those years for the time it had afforded him to do what he loved most. Mostel’s appearance before HUAC (as well as others') was incorporated into the 1972 play Are You Now or Have You Ever Been…?
Ulysses in Nighttown and career revival
In 1957, Toby Cole, a New York theatrical agent who strongly opposed the blacklist, contacted Mostel and asked to represent him. The partnership was to have the effect of reviving Mostel’s career and making him a household name. Mostel accepted the role of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses in Nighttown, a play based on the novel Ulysses, which he greatly admired in his youth. It was an Off-Off-Broadway play produced in a small Houston Street theater, but the reviews Mostel received were overwhelmingly favorable. Most notably, Newsweek’s Jack Kroll compared him to Laurence Olivier, writing, “Something unbelievable happened. A fat comedian named Zero Mostel gave a performance that was even more astonishing than Olivier’s.” Mostel received the Obie award for best Off-Broadway performance of the 1958–59 season.
After the success of Ulysses, Mostel received many offers to appear in classic roles, especially abroad. However, artistic differences with the directors and the low salaries he was offered prevented these from ever materializing. By this time the blacklist was beginning to crumble, and in 1959, appeared twice on TV's The Play of the Week.
1960s and height of career
On January 13, 1960, while exiting a taxi on his way back from rehearsals for the play The Good Soup, Mostel was hit by a number 18 (now the M86) 86th Street crosstown bus, and his leg was crushed. The doctors wanted to amputate the leg, which would have effectively ended his stage career. Mostel refused, accepting the risk of gangrene, and remained hospitalized for four months. The gamble paid off, but for the rest of his life the massively-scarred leg gave him pain and required frequent rests and baths. After incurring his injury he retained the famous Harry Lipsig (the 5'3" self-described, "King of Torts"). The prospect of having Harry Lipsig, a Brooklyn street lawyer and spitfire of a man who was renowned for his schmaltzy renderings of depredation to NY juries looking to roast the insurance companies, combined with the prospect of the injured party being none other than Zero Mostel must have terrified the MTA counsel, because the case was settled for an undisclosed sum. Shortly thereafter the Mostels were able to leave the rented apartment on 86th Street for a co-op apartment they bought at The Dakota. From this time forward Mostel would affect a cane when he attended the Metropolitan Opera, to go along with the cape that he also favored.
Later that year Mostel took on the role of Estragon in a TV adaptation of Waiting for Godot. In 1961, he played Jean in Rhinoceros to very favorable reviews. The New Republic’s Robert Brustein said that he had “a great dancer’s control of movement, a great actor’s control of voice, a great mime’s control of facial expressions.” His transition onstage from man to rhinoceros became a thing of legend; he won his first Tony Award for Best Actor, even though he was not in the lead role.
In 1962 Mostel began work on the role of Pseudolus in the Broadway musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was to be one of his most recognizable roles. The role of Pseudolus was originally offered to Phil Silvers, who declined it, saying he did not want to do this "old shtick." Mostel did not originally want to do the role either, which he thought below his capabilities, but was convinced by his wife and agent. The reviews were excellent, and, after a few slow weeks, the show became a great commercial success, running 964 performances and conferring on Mostel a star status (he also won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for this role). It was also produced as a movie version in 1966, also starring Mostel (and Silvers).
On September 22, 1964, Mostel opened as Tevye in the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof. Mostel’s respect for the works of Sholem Aleichem made him insist that more of the author's mood and style were incorporated into the musical, and he made major contributions to its shape. He also created the cantorial sounds made famous in songs such as “If I Were a Rich Man.” In later years, the actors who followed Mostel in the role of Tevye invariably followed his staging. The show received rave reviews and was a great commercial success, running 3242 performances, a record at the time. Mostel received a Tony Award for it and was invited for a reception in the White House, officially ending his political pariah status.
In 1967, Mostel appeared as Potemkin in Great Catherine, and in 1968 he took on one of his most famous roles, that of Max Bialystock in The Producers. Mostel refused to accept the role at first, but director Mel Brooks convinced him to show the script to his wife, who then talked Mostel into doing it. His performance received mixed reviews, and was not a great success at first, but the film has achieved cult status since.
In his last decade, Mostel showed little enthusiasm for artistic theatrical progress. Rather than choosing roles that would bring him critical acclaim or that he wanted to do, he seemed to be available for any role that paid well. The result was a succession of movies for which, for the first time since he had established himself as a performer, reviews were mixed at best. Such endeavors were The Great Bank Robbery, The Angel Levine, Once Upon a Scoundrel, and Mastermind. This caused the devaluation of his star power: once a top-billing actor, he now had to make do with featured billing, and his appearance in a movie or play no longer guaranteed success.
There have been a few exceptions, however: the movie version of Rhinoceros, The Front (where he played Hecky Brown, a blacklisted performer whose story bears a similarity to Mostel’s own, and for which he was nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor), and theatrical revivals of Fiddler and Ulysses in Nighttown. He also made memorable appearances in children’s shows such as Sesame Street, The Electric Company (for which he performed the Spellbinder in the Letterman cartoons), and The Muppet Show, and gave voice to the boisterous seagull Kehaar in the animated film Watership Down.
In the last four months of his life, Mostel took on a nutritionally unsound diet (later described by his friends as a starvation diet) that reduced his weight from 304 to 215 pounds. During rehearsals for the play The Merchant in Philadelphia, he collapsed in his dressing room and was taken to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. He was diagnosed with a respiratory disorder and it was believed he was in no danger and would be released soon. However, on September 8, 1977, Mostel suddenly complained of dizziness and lost consciousness. The attending physicians were unable to revive him, and he was pronounced dead that evening. It is now believed that he suffered an aortic aneurysm.
In accordance with his final requests, his family did not stage any funeral or other memorial service to mark his passing. Mostel was cremated following his death; the location of his ashes is not publicly known.
Mostel had often collided with directors and other performers in the course of his professional career. He was described as irreverent, believing himself to be a comic genius (many critics agreed with him) and showed little patience for incompetence. He often improvised, which was received well by audiences but which often left other performers (who were not prepared for his ad-libbed lines) confused and speechless during live performance. He often dominated the stage whether or not his role called for it. Norman Jewison stated this as a reason for preferring Chaim Topol to him for the role of Tevye in the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof. Mostel took exception to these criticisms: “There’s a kind of silliness in the theater about what one contributes to a show. The producer obviously contributes the money… but must the actor contribute nothing at all? I’m not a modest fellow about those things. I contribute a great deal. And they always manage to hang you for having an interpretation. Isn’t [the theater] where your imagination should flower? Why must it always be dull as shit?” 
Other producers, such as Jerome Robbins and Hal Prince, preferred to hire Mostel on short contracts, knowing that he would become less faithful to the script as time went on. His larger-than-life persona, though largely responsible for his success, had also intimidated others in his profession and prevented him from receiving some important roles.
In his autobiography, Kiss Me Like A Stranger, actor Gene Wilder describes being initially terrified of Mostel. However, just after being introduced, Mostel got up, walked over to Wilder, and planted a big kiss on him. Wilder claims to be grateful to Mostel for teaching him such a valuable lesson, and for picking Wilder up every day so that they could ride to work together. He also tells the story of a dinner celebrating the release of The Producers. Mostel switched Wilder's place card with Dick Shawn's, allowing Wilder to sit at the main table. Mostel and Wilder would later go on to work together in Rhinoceros and the Letterman cartoons for the children's show The Electric Company. The two remained close friends until Mostel's death.
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