American Actor Zero Mostel was born on this day in 1915. He was best known his portrayal as Tevye on stage in Fiddler on the Roof, Pseudolus on stage and on screen in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Max Bialystock in the original film version of The Producers.
Mostel was the son of Jewish immigrants who had come to America from Eastern Europe. Zero Mostel was drafted into the Army in 1943. The reason for his early discharge was unclear, but he continued to entertain the troops through 1945 via the USO.
Mostel was blacklisted for suspected association with the Communist party and did not appear in films between 1951 and 1959. He appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in August 1955.
Civil Liberties activist Frank Wilkinson gave the following account:
“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 the 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, the 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.'”
Mostel refused to name names to the committee and his family struggled financially during the 1950s when he was out of work. He returned to stage in the late 1950s and later resumed his film career.
Mostel went on a severe diet four months before he died, taking his weight from 304 to 215 pounds. He collapsed in Philadelphia during rehearsals for Arnold Wesker’s new play The Merchant. He was diagnosed with a respiratory disorder and soon released.
On September 8, 1977, Mostel complained of dizziness and lost consciousness. Doctors were unable to revive him and It is believed that he suffered an aortic aneurysm. He was 62.