September 9, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
When Zero Mostel died in 1977, I had a visceral and emotional response to his passing. I loved his crazy and seemingly unlimited talents and miss his one-of-a-kind performances to this day. Here’s a tribute in today’s “Theatre Yesterday and Today.”
On a beautiful September day forty-three years ago, I was driving in a Toyota Hatchback with Larry Horowitz, my then-college roommate. SUNY Purchase, where we both attended (he as a visual artist and I as an actor), had a later-than-usual start than other schools and we were on a ten-day trip through New England before we had to report to campus. We had just spent time with a friend of mine in Maine, who had a cottage on a lake and who was always open to people dropping by. While Larry and I visited, one of her other guests was Doreen Wesker, whose husband, the acclaimed British playwright Sir Arnold Wesker, was busy at work in Philadelphia on his newest play, The Merchant. It was trying out there before its scheduled opening on Broadway in a few weeks’ time. I peppered Mrs. Wesker with questions, because The Merchant was starring one of my all-time favorite actors — the one and only Zero Mostel. Unfortunately, the show was in Philly and we were in Maine, so she didn’t really have much to offer about interacting with the Great Mostel.
After driving out of Maine for our next destination, Larry and I stopped for gas. I picked up a newspaper and once back in the car and leafing through it, I was taken aback by a headline which read: “Zero Rests.” I didn’t know quite what that meant so I continued. The first line was something like “When Zero Mostel died last night of an aortic aneurysm …” and I had to stop reading. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Wait. What?… then slowly, the information crystalized, and I knew that the theatre had lost someone irreplaceable; one of the entertainment world’s true treasures. I was shocked and saddened by this news — and I wasn’t alone. Mostel was only sixty-two, and even with his volatile personality and sometimes questionable stage discipline, there was no one who doubted his talents, of which he had many. He was an outlandish comedian, a first-rate actor, a mime, an eccentric singer, and moved with a near effortless grace for such a large man (at times he weighed 300 pounds and had one leg practically useless from it being run over by a bus). He was also a skilled and admired painter of oils and watercolors.
With The Merchant, Mostel was seeking a revival of his fortunes by returning to Broadway in a new drama for the first time in sixteen years since he had taken the critics by storm for his man-turned-into-beast in Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist Rhinoceros in 1961. Over the years, his work in the theatre had been reduced to loaning himself out as a cash cow on the road recreating his Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and his Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It had been nearly a decade since he hit the heights on screen as Max Bialistock in The Producers, which didn’t turn into the film career he might have wanted. The Merchant was to be a re-interpretation of the Shylock story that made the character less the play’s villain that he is in Shakespeare’s version and it felt like the right fit for Mostel. The public thought so too, and the show had a substantial $200,000 advance, a lot of money in those days, especially for a straight play.
And here was Zero, taking substantially less salary as well as taking the work very seriously. He was intent on creating something special, and to that end, he felt his Shylock needed to be a less larger presence than he usually presented. So, he dieted (crash dieted, is more like it) and the result was a loss of almost ninety pounds, going from 304 to 215 in the last four months of his life (according to his doctor). When he felt faint in his dressing room before the matinee performance after his first night on stage, he was quickly hospitalized with what doctors first thought was an upper respiratory infection. Though his condition was later downgraded to exhaustion, he was much sicker than anyone knew and, a few days later, succumbed instantly to a fatal heart attack.
And when Zero died, The Merchant essentially died with it. The producers considered everyone for the role from Laurence Olivier to Orson Welles to Richard Burton, but his shadow loomed so large no one was willing to follow him, even though he had given a total of one performance before taking ill. The role eventually went to his understudy, a lovely actor named Joseph Leon (which was not a name to put above the marquee like Zero’s was). With the rest of the Philadelphia engagement canceled, the show went back to New York for rehearsals, then played in Washington D.C. as previously arranged. Scheduled to open at the Imperial Theatre, it was decided that without a star as Shylock the better course of action was to slip into the Plymouth Theatre across the street, where 400 seats less to sell per performance made sense.
The Merchant’s director was the brilliant — yet hateful — John Dexter, who won Tony Awards for Equus and M Butterfly, both of which he guided to Best Play Tony’s as well. Even without the star quality (and box office) Mostel offered, Dexter proclaimed his satisfaction with Leon’s performance as Shylock and put a stop to any talk of getting another actor. Privately, he told Wesker that “the sad truth was that had Zero been playing the role the play would never have sprung to such life. One of the problems of giving him notes was that I could never get him to stay still for long enough.” But it’s hard to believe that statement coming from someone with Dexter’s reputation for back-stabbing, as he already was telling the producers that Wesker wouldn’t make any script changes when — according to Wesker — the truth was that Dexter was refusing to read anything the playwright was submitting to him.
In spite of all these difficulties, The Merchant had a good audience response (and decent enough reviews in D.C.) and its preview performances in New York also went well. According to Wesker, not only did he think the show was going to be a hit, so did Bernard Jacobs and Gerald Schoenfeld, who, in addition to their roles as heads of the mighty Shubert Organization (which owns the majority of the Broadway theatres), were the lead producers of The Merchant. This led to everyone being blindsided when the play was almost completely dismissed by the critics. Richard Eder in the New York Times summed up the general consensus when he called the play “intelligent but weak… the evening is stimulating but only sometimes successful.” Richard Watts in the Daily News wrote “Wesker, in seeking to enable the harsh contract [between Antonio and Shylock], has taken the malice, the very sting out of the play.”
The Merchant folded in a weekend.
Wesker, who died in 2016 at the age of eighty-three, wrote a book in 1999 about his experience with The Merchant. He titled it The Birth of Shylock & The Death of Zero Mostel and it’s an excellent piece of writing, and for anyone who loves behind the scenes stories of a Broadway show (and Zero Mostel) it’s an essential read.
What ultimately made Mostel so special was his unique ability to find not only the high comedy in a role, but its pathos. It was certainly the defining aspect of his Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, which I would have loved to have seen as a small child back in 1964, when he was new and fresh to the role. For anyone wondering what he might have been like, it’s a mitzvah that his performance was committed for posterity as an album, since it features, to my mind at least, the single greatest performance given by an actor on an original cast recording.
If you don’t believe me, put the album on your turntable (maybe), or download Fiddler on iTunes. You’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.