Paul Muni

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Paul Muni
Paul Muni - Zola - 1936.jpg
1936
BornFrederich Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund
(1895-09-22)22 September 1895
Lemberg, Austro-Hungarian Empire (present day Lviv, Ukraine)
Died25 August 1967(1967-08-25) (aged 71)
Montecito, California, U.S.
Other namesMuni Weisenfreund
OccupationActor
Years active1929–62
Spouse(s)Bella Finkel (1921-1967; his death)
 
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Paul Muni
Paul Muni - Zola - 1936.jpg
1936
BornFrederich Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund
(1895-09-22)22 September 1895
Lemberg, Austro-Hungarian Empire (present day Lviv, Ukraine)
Died25 August 1967(1967-08-25) (aged 71)
Montecito, California, U.S.
Other namesMuni Weisenfreund
OccupationActor
Years active1929–62
Spouse(s)Bella Finkel (1921-1967; his death)

Paul Muni (born Frederich Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund; 22 September 1895 – 25 August 1967) was an Austrian-born American stage and film actor who grew up in Chicago. He started his acting career in the Yiddish theatre. During the 1930s, he was considered one of the most prestigious actors at Warner Brothers studios, and was given the rare privilege of choosing which parts he wanted.

His acting quality, usually playing a powerful character, such as the lead in Scarface (1932), was partly a result of his intense preparation for his parts, often immersing himself in study of the real character's traits and mannerisms. He was also highly skilled in using make-up techniques, a talent he learned from his parents, who were also actors, and from his early years on stage with the Yiddish Theater in Chicago. At the age of 12, he played the stage role of an 80-year-old man; in one of his films, Seven Faces, he played seven different characters.

He was nominated six times for an Oscar, winning once as Best Actor in The Story of Louis Pasteur. He won the New York Film Critics Circle Award and a Tony Award.

Early life and career[edit]

His Hebrew name was Meshiliem; he was also called Frederich Meier Weisenfreund, born to a Jewish family in Lemberg, Galicia, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (It is now Lviv, Ukraine (formerly Lwów, Poland between the World Wars). He learned Yiddish as his first language. When he was seven, he immigrated with his family to the United States in 1902; they settled in Chicago.

As a boy, he was known as "Muni".[1] He started his acting career in the Yiddish theatre in Chicago with his parents, who were both actors. As a teenager, he developed a skill in creating makeup, which enabled him to play much older characters.[2] Film historian Robert Osborne notes that Muni's make-up skills were so creative, that for most of his roles, "he transformed his appearance so completely, he was dubbed 'the New Lon Chaney.'"[3] In his first stage role at the age of 12, Muni played the role of an 80-year-old man.[3]

He was quickly recognized by Maurice Schwartz, who signed him up with his Yiddish Art Theater.[4] Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni were cousins to Charles M. Fritz, who was a notable actor during the Great Depression.

A 1925 New York Times article singled out his and Sam Kasten's performances at the People's Theater as among the highlights of that year's Yiddish theater season, describing them as second only to Ludwig Satz.

Muni began acting on Broadway in 1926. His first role was that of an elderly Jewish man in the play We Americans, written by playwrights Max Siegel and Milton Herbert Gropper. It was the first time that he ever acted in English.

Marriage and family[edit]

In 1921, he married Bella Finkel (February 8, 1898 - October 1, 1971), an actress in the Yiddish theatre. They remained married until Muni's death in 1967.

Hollywood[edit]

In 1929 Muni was signed by Fox. His name was simplified and anglicized to Paul Muni (he had the nickname "Moony" when young). His acting talents were quickly recognized and he received an Oscar nomination for his first film, The Valiant (1929), although the film did poorly at the box office.[2] His second film, Seven Faces (also 1929), was also a financial failure. Unhappy with the roles offered him, he returned to Broadway, where he starred in a major hit play, Counselor at Law.[3]

In Scarface (1932)

Paul Muni soon returned to Hollywood to star in such harrowing pre-Code films as the original Scarface and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (both 1932). For the second, he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor. The acclaim that Muni received as a result of this performance so impressed Warner Brothers, that they signed him to a long-term contract, "publicizing him as the screen's greatest actor."[3]

Scarface, part of a cycle of gangster films at the time,[5] was written by Ben Hecht[6]:6 and directed by Howard Hawks. Critic Richard Corliss noted in 1974 that, while it was a serious gangster film, it also "manages both to congratulate journalism for its importance and to chastise it for its chicanery, by underlining the newspapers' complicity in promoting the underworld image." [6] :10

In 1935, Muni persuaded Warner Bros. to take a financial risk by producing its first historical biography, The Story of Louis Pasteur. This became Muni's first of many biographical roles. He starred as a crusading scientist who fights derision in his native country to prove that his medical theories will save lives. Until that film, most Warner Bros. stories originated from current events and major news stories. The sudden success of the film gave Warner's "box office gold", notes Osborne.[3] Muni won an Oscar for his performance.

He played other historical figures, including Émile Zola, a "man of conscience", in The Life of Emile Zola (1937), for which he was nominated for an Oscar.[7] The film won Best Picture and was interpreted as indirectly attacking the repression of Nazi Germany.[7] He also played the lead role in Juarez (1939).

As Louis Pasteur (1936)

In 1937, Muni played a Chinese peasant, with a new bride, in a film adaptation of Pearl Buck's novel, The Good Earth. It co-starred Luise Rainer as his wife; she won an Academy Award for her part. The film was a re-creation of a revolutionary period in China, and included special effects for a locust attack and the overthrow of the government. Because Muni was not of Asian descent, when producer Irving Thalberg offered him the role, he said, "I'm about as Chinese as [President] Herbert Hoover."[3]

Dissatisfied with life in Hollywood, Muni chose not to renew his contract. He returned to the screen only occasionally in later years, for such roles as Frédéric Chopin's teacher in A Song to Remember (1945). In 1946, he starred in a rare comic performance, Angel on My Shoulder, playing a gangster whose early death prompts the Devil (played by Claude Rains) to make mischief by putting his soul into the body of a judge. His new identity turns the former criminal into a model citizen.

Later career[edit]

New York City opening of A Flag is Born (1946)

Muni focused most of his energies on stage work. Also in 1946, he appeared on Broadway in A Flag is Born, written by Ben Hecht, to help promote the creation of a Jewish state in Israel.[8] This play was directed by Luther Adler and co-starred Marlon Brando. At London's Phoenix Theatre on July 28, 1949, Muni began a run as Willy Loman in the first English production of Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. He took over from Lee J. Cobb, who had played the principal role in the original Broadway production. Both productions were directed by Elia Kazan.

A few years later, during 1955 and 1956, Muni had his biggest stage success in the United States as the crusading lawyer, Henry Drummond (based on Clarence Darrow), in Inherit the Wind, winning a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play. In late August 1955, Muni was forced to withdraw from the play, due to a serious eye ailment causing deterioration in his eyesight. He was later replaced by actor Melvyn Douglas.[9]

In early September 1955, Muni, then 59 years old, was diagnosed with a tumor of the left eye. The eye was removed in an operation at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. His right eye was reported to be normal.[10] In early December 1955, Muni returned to his starring role as Henry Drummond in the play Inherit the Wind.[11]

After one more film role as an aging doctor in The Last Angry Man (1959), for which he was again nominated for an Oscar, Muni retired from acting. He had to deal with failing eyesight and other health problems.[3] Muni appeared in 25 films during his career and was nominated six times for Academy Awards, winning once.

Acting techniques[edit]

Paul Muni in the trailer for Scarface.

Muni was noted for his intense preparation for his roles, especially the biographies. While preparing for The Story of Louis Pasteur, Muni said, "I read most everything that was in the library, and everything I could lay my hands on that had to do with Pasteur, with Lister, or with his contemporaries."[12] He did the same in preparing for his role as Henry Drummond, based on Clarence Darrow, in the play Inherit the Wind. He read what he could find, talked to people who knew Darrow personally, and studied physical mannerisms from photographs of him. "To Paul Muni, acting was not just a career, but an obsession", writes the New York Times. They note that despite his enormous success on both Broadway and in films, "he threw himself into each role with a sense of dedication." Playwright Arthur Miller commented that Muni "was pursued by a fear of failure."[12]

As Muni was born into an acting family, with both of his parents professional actors, "he learned his craft carefully and thoroughly." On stage, "a Muni whisper could reach the last balcony of any theater", writes the Times. It wrote that his style "had drawn into it the warmth of the Yiddish stage", in which he made his debut at the age of 12. In addition, his technique in using makeup "was a work of art." Combined with acting which followed no "method", he perfected his control of voice and gestures into an acting style that was "unique."[12]

Film historian David Shipman described Muni as "an actor of great integrity",[13] noting he meticulously prepared for his roles. Muni was widely recognized as eccentric if talented: he objected to anyone wearing red in his presence, but at the same time could often be found between sessions playing his violin. Over the years, he became increasingly dependent on his wife, Bella, especially as he was blind in his last years.[13] Muni was "inflexible on matters of taste and principle", once turning down an $800,000 movie contract because he wasn't happy with the studio's choice of film roles.[12]

Personal life[edit]

He retired from filmmaking in 1959, soon after receiving his sixth Academy Award nomination for The Last Angry Man. He made a final television appearance in the series Saints and Sinners in 1962.

In his private life, he was considered "exceedingly shy", and was discomforted to be recognized while out shopping or dining. He enjoyed reading and going for walks with his wife in secluded sections of Central Park. He always arrived at the theater by 7:30pm to prepare for that night's performance. After retiring from acting, he lived in California, in what was considered an "austere" setting, where he and his wife enjoyed their privacy. In his den, which he called his "Shangri-La", he spent time reading books and listening to the radio.[12]

Muni died of a heart disorder in Montecito in 1967, aged 71. He is interred in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Hollywood, CA.

Legacy and honors[edit]

Filmography[edit]

YearFilmRoleNotes
1929The ValiantJames DykeNominated — Academy Award for Best Actor
Seven FacesPapa Chibou, Diablero, Willie Smith,
Franz Schubert, Don Juan, Joe Gans, Napoleon
1932ScarfaceAntonio "Tony" Camonte
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain GangJames AllenNominated — Academy Award for Best Actor
1933The World ChangesOrin Nordholm Jr.
1934Hi, Nellie!Brad Bradshaw
1935BordertownJohnny Ramirez
Black FuryJoe RadekNominated — Academy Award for Best Actor
Dr. SocratesDr. Lee Cardwell, nicknamed "Dr. Socrates"
1936The Story of Louis PasteurLouis PasteurAcademy Award for Best Actor
1937The Good EarthWangReleased in sepia tone
The Woman I LoveLt. Claude Maury
The Life of Emile ZolaÉmile ZolaNew York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor
Nominated — Academy Award for Best Actor
1939JuarezBenito Juárez
We Are Not AloneDr. David Newcome
1941Hudson's BayPierre-Esprit Radisson
1942Commandos Strike at DawnErik Toresen
1943Stage Door CanteenHimself
1945A Song to RememberProf. Joseph ElsnerFilmed in Technicolor
Counter-AttackAlexei Kulkov
1946Angel on My ShoulderEddie Kagle/Judge Fredrick Parker
1952Imbarco a mezzanotteThe Stranger With A Guncalled Stranger on the Prowl in the U.S.
1959The Last Angry ManDr. Sam AbelmanNominated — Academy Award for Best Actor

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ [Adler, Jacob, A Life on the Stage: A Memoir], translated and with commentary by Lulla Rosenfeld, Knopf, New York, 1999, ISBN 0-679-41351-0. Note on p 377: "... Muni Weisenfreund, now Paul Muni".
  2. ^ a b International Dictionary of Actors and Actresses - Actors and Actresses, 3rd Ed., St. James Press, 1997, pp. 858-859
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Osborne, Robert; Miller, Frank. Leading Men: The 50 Most Unforgettable Actors of the Studio Era, Chronicle Books, 2006, pp. 153-155
  4. ^ STRAUSS, THEODORE (Dec 17, 1939). "PAUL MUNI, LESS THE 'MR.,' RETURNS; PAUL MUNI, LESS THE 'MR.,' RETURNS TO TOWN". New York Times. Retrieved 2010-04-01. 
  5. ^ See also Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (both 1931).
  6. ^ a b Corliss, Richard, Talking Pictures, (1974) Overlook Press
  7. ^ a b David Denby, "Hitler in Hollywood"], The New Yorker, 16 September 2013
  8. ^ A Flag Is Born, David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, April 2004
  9. ^ "Paul Muni Quits Broadway Play; Has Eye Ailment", Toledo Blade newspaper, August 31, 1955
  10. ^ "Paul Muni Loses Left Eye to Tumor", Milwaukee Sentinel, 7 September 1955
  11. ^ "Ovation Greets Paul Muni On Return To Play", Toledo Blade newspaper, December 2, 1955
  12. ^ a b c d e New York Times, Obituary, Aug. 26, 1967
  13. ^ a b David Shipman Ther Great Movie Stars: he Golden Years, London: Macdonald, 1989, p.434, 437
  14. ^ Actor: The Paul Muni Story, New York Times, accessed 12 September 2013
  15. ^ [1]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

External links[edit]