A journey back to the height of McCarthyism when the country was captive to the irrational paranoia fueled by the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC), the self-appointed prosecutors, judge and jury of one dimensional patriotism.
It’s not often that one gets to sit across the table from a notable actor, artist and political activist and hear first hand his recollections and reflections on his career and on a truly dark hour in the history of our country. In the new off Broadway play Zero Hour, playwright and actor Jim Brochu brings Zero Mostel back to life for one last interview. As I suspect was typical of Mostel in real life, the “interview” was pretty one sided – the journalist from the NY Times (played by the audience) didn’t have a chance to get many questions in edgewise.
The play opens as Mostel, working in his art studio on West 28th St. (he was a serious painter as well as a comedian, Broadway actor and film star) barks at us to GO AWAY! but reluctantly lets us in, figuring he can always use a live model to paint. I imagine the script is littered with exclamation points as Zero Mostel was a big man in many ways – his girth and bellowing voice fill the garret (and indeed the Theatre at St. Clement’s) and Brochu brilliantly captures his droll, brusque, and brutally honest spirit. At one point we are interrupted by a phone call from his wife, requesting that he schlep uptown to Zabars for sour cream to which Mostel growls, “Sour cream is sour cream! It’s creamy and it’s sour – I’ll go to Gristedes!” So we learn not to take his snarling personally. In fact, it’s not long before we’re able to peak beneath Mostel’s gruff exterior, revealing a sensitive and tender soul.
In this context Mostel takes us on a journey back to the height of McCarthyism when the country was captive to the irrational paranoia fueled by the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC), the self-appointed prosecutors, judge and jury of one dimensional patriotism. For Mostel, it was personal. Many of his friends and colleagues were being subpeonaed to testify before HUAC and publicly humiliated. The stakes were high and there were only two ways to respond. Either you provided the committee what they were looking for, i.e., repudiation of leftist views and ratting out your colleagues by “naming names” or you refused to cooperate and suffered the consequences. Those consequences ranged from serving time in jail for “contempt” to the inability to get work because you’ve been blacklisted. The blacklist was created when Hollywood studio executives voted in November 1947 to work together to prevent artists from working in the entertainment industry if they refused to take a “loyalty oath” and disassociate themselves from the Communist Party. It was later expanded to include those even merely suspected of sympathizing with Communists.
Some never recovered their careers; Zero’s friend Phil “Philly” Loeb was driven to suicide. Not coincidently, Jews were singled out for the harshest treatment. When a group of actors, directors, writers and producers called the Committee for the First Amendment dared to challenge McCarthy and his cronies by sending a petition protesting the assault on freedom, the bi-partisan anti semitic backlash was thinly veiled. Rep. John E. Rankin (D-Miss.) the ranking Democrat on the HUAC, made a point of revealing their “real” names. “There is one who calls himself Edward (G.) Robinson. His real name: Emanuel Goldenberg. There is another one here who calls himself Melvyn Douglas, whose real name is Melvyn Hesselberg. There are others too numerous to mention.“
In October 1955 it was Mostel’s turn to testify before HUAC. Jerome Robbins, apparently in fear that he would be outed as a homosexual named him and Jack Guilford. Mostel denied being a Communist but refused to name others. As a result he was barred from work in Hollywood for almost 10 years. And yet, despite his feelings about him personally, Mostel was able to eventually work with Robbins professionally. When producer Harold Prince asked Mostel if he’d be willing to do so in order to help save the play A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, his response was, simply, “Are you asking me to eat with him? Of course I’ll work with him. We of the left don’t blacklist.”
Brochu not only physically resembles Mostel and nailed his voice and mannerisms – he also hails from Brooklyn, fell in love with theater at an early age and played many of the roles Mostel pioneered including Pseudolous in Forum and Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. But Brochu pioneered several roles of his own including one of the dancing raisins for Post Raisin Bran. Brochu has written and directed a number of critically acclaimed Off-Broadway dramas and musicals, but Zero Hour should prove to be his breakout acheivement.
Zero Hour quickly passed – when Mostel completed his painting he politely excused himself. He was off to Zabars in search of sour cream.