Zero Mostel


  1. Gregory Ratoff, All About Eve, 1950.
  2. Kurt Kazner, The Happy Time, 1952.       Everyone was cast except, well, who could handle the tipsy Uncle Louis? Director Richard Fleischer wanted Broadway’s Louis – but Kazner’s agent wanted way too much money. Producer Stanley Kramer suggested one of his idols – Mostel. He was out of work, living in a garret, since appearing before the Un-American Activities Committee.  “Even in the best of times that face wore a mournful look,” said Fleischer. “Now you could read despair in it, as well.” Perfect! Then the Columbia czar Harry Cohn ruined Mostel’s dream. No Commie was going to be in one of his movies!   This was Fleischer’s first contact with the abominable blacklist – “and I was shaken.” Kazner got the money his agent demanded.
  3. Edwin Max, Bloodhounds of Broadway, 1952.  Change of Lookout Louie  in what Fox fearlessly called a musical – set in Damon Runyon country.  As underlined by such other hoods as Numbers Foster, Poorly Sammis, Curtaintime Charlie and Dave The Dude  – who was Glenn Ford in 1961’s A Pocketful of Miracles. 
  4. Buster Keaton, Film,  1964.     Irish  playwright Samuel Beckett had always wanted to work with the baby-faced silent clown, Harry Langdon. He died, however, before Beckett could even finish his sole  film script (silent, but for  a “sssh!”), let alone set about trying to make it. Charlie Chaplin was impossible to contact. Zero Mostel proved unavailable. Jack MacGowran, finest performer of Beckett’s plays was too busy. Finally, almost begrudgingly, Beckett suggested  Keaton. The two icons never got on (Buster  having turned down Sam’s Waiting For Godot on Broadway), but director Alan Schneider (who says Sam was the true director) said Keaton was totally professional: patient, imperturbable, relaxed…  indefatigable if not exactly loquacious.  He played  O. The other  character was the  actual camera, E – E and O, Eye and Object. No wonder  US critic Andrew Sarris called it  pretentious garbage. 
  5. Rod Steiger, The Loved One, 1964. “The motion picture with something to offend everyone…”  It would have been more so if Spanish legend Luis Buñuel had managed to  make it with Alec Guinness in  the mid-1950s. Instead, the newly Oscared UK director Tony Richardson made a mess of it.  Based, badly, on Evelyn Waugh’s 1948  satire on the American funeral home business, the movie  is stolen by Steiger as Mr Joyboy, chief embalmer at Whispering Glades. It would have been  impossible for Mostel to match  Steiger’s mother’s boy –when he makes  dinner just for her, it is an entire turkey. “One of the great moments of ’sick humor’ ever put on the screen,” for Sean Sweeney at
  6. Tony Randall, The Alphabet Murders, 1965.       The very idea of a Jewish Hercule Poirot must have sent Agatha Christie’s notoriously anti-Semitic hackles rising…   But Mostel and UK director Seth Holt did not make the whodunnit. Director Frank Tashlin did – as a comedy, of course. With Randall and Robert Morley (not to mention Anita Ekberg) chewing the furniture. The guys being a damn sight funnier just sitting around, shooting the breeze with me on the set, than in the film. Poor Zero (what a name!) was not so amused about losing one of his dream roles.
  7. Chuck McCann, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, 1967.  Zero had been set for the versions of directors José Quintero and Sidney Lumet. But Robert Ellis Miiller chose the comic Vernon as the grocer, Spiros Antonapoulos – a deaf mute like his pal, Singer, played by Aklan Arkin.  (Both Lumet and Quintero wanted Montgomery Clift).  Vernon quit after a few days and Miller ran to his alternate, McCann. He was, apparently, so large it was difficult to find a white suit for him. The solution was in the Warner Bros costume department – suits previously made for Sidney Greenstreet back in the 40s.
  8. Groucho Marx, Skidoo, 1968. “It takes two to Skidoo,” said the poster for the bowel-movement of producer-director-ogre Otto Preminger after dropping acid and shooting a “writing sample” rather than a script about the generation he had no idea about – that of his son, Erik Lee Preminger.  Otto then disgustingly berated 78-year-old Groucho after choosing him to play God (in his painted moustache). Presumably, Groucho needed the money.  Alfred Hitchcock (!), Zero Mostel, Anthony Quinn, Frank Sinatra, Rod Steiger did not. Nor the former US Senate Minority Leader from  Pekin, Illinois, Senator Everett Dirksen.
  9. Jon Voight, Catch 22, 1969.      With his eye on Milo Minderbinder rather than his mirror, Mostel gave Richard Lester the Joseph Heller book after they finishedA Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum…(I meet them both – and Buster Keaton! -on location in Madrid).After Stanley Kubrick, Lester was top choice to helm. He preferred another WWII satire, How I Won The War.Somehow,Dick’s usual camerace, David Watkin, was able to shoot both films!
  10. Topol, Fiddler on the Roof,  1970.  When word got out that  that producer Walter Mirisch and director Norman Jewison didn’t want   Broadway’s  Zero Mostel – “too big for film!” – Danny Kaye expressed great interest in  becoming Tevye. So did such possibles as Herschel Bernardi (once blacklisted like Mostel and his  successor in the Broadway show),  Walter Matthau, Anthony Quinn, Rod Steiger, Danny Thomas. Plus such downright impossibles as Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Orson Welles (no roof was strong enough) and… and    Frank Sinatra… If I Were A Rich Man Dooby Dooby Doo!  None got to first base once Chaim Topol ended  his run of the West End  production; he’d  lost the Broadway role when called up for Israeli army duty during  and after the Six Day War. He was replaced by the excessively larger-than-life Mostel who remained  bitter .about losing the film.  So did his son. When offered the Delta House series in 1979, Josh Mostel rasped: ”Tell them to ask Topol’s son if he wants the job!”  

  11. Larry David, Whatever Works, 2009.
    “I’d originally conceived it in 1977,” explained Woody Allen, “for Zero… big, fat, blustery, self-aggranidzing… He was so cultivated, he knew everything about art, literature, science, music and was always sharing this knowledge from a justifiably superior position. I thought it’d be very funny that he’s living with this dumb little runaway from the South. And suddenly her mother shows up, and she hates everything about him. And then her father shows up. The character was mortally afraid of dying, hypochondriacal, washing his hands. That original material all remained the same, social and political things had to be changed and freshened up..When Zero died, I never thought for one minute of doing the part myself.  I put it in the drawer, and were it not for an imminent possible actor’s strike, I’d never have taken it out… It’s not a part that I could’ve played. Larry is able to do sardonic, sarcastic vitriolic humor and get away with it. Groucho Marx has this. People were offended if Groucho didn’t insult them, he told me once If I was insulting people and proclaiming my own genius and saying that people were cretins, you would not like me.” As they didn’t when he took over the somewhat similar lead in Deconstructing Harry, 1997 – both awful guys, too awful for Woody to play. Honestly. And he sent for the wit behind Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm who, in 1987, was the Communist Neighbour in Woody’s Radio Days.



 Birth year: 1915Death year: 1977Other name: Casting Calls:  11