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Origin:
Brooklyn, New York, USA
Decades:
1943-1977

Samuel Joel “Zero” Mostel (February 28, 1915 – September 8, 1977) was an American actor of stage and screen, best known for his portrayal of comic characters such as Tevye onstage in Fiddler on the Roof, Pseudolus onstage and onscreen in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Max Bialystock in the original film version of The Producers. He was blacklisted during the 1950s, and his testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities was well-publicized. He was a Tony Award and Obie Award winner. 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.


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