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|Also Known As:||Muni Weisenfreund||Died:||August 25, 1967|
|Born:||September 22, 1895||Cause of Death:||Heart disorder|
|Birth Place:||Austria||Profession:||Cast ... actor|
Paul Muni was truly an actor's actor. Although he always protested that he didn't know what acting was, he threw himself into each role, changing his voice, his body and even his face. His penchant for hiding his good looks behind tons of make-up for each role won him the nickname "The New Lon Chaney," but it occasionally got on the nerves of his boss at Warner Bros., Jack Warner, who once complained, "Why are we paying him so much money when we can't even find him?" (Warner, quoted in Frank Miller, Leading Men.) Whatever Muni thought of his own talents, his peers were impressed. He was honored with five Oscar® nominations and a write in vote (when it was still allowed) that came close to winning. He won the award for The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936). He and James Dean are the only two actors to win Oscar® nominations for their first and last credited screen appearances.
Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund was born in what is now the Ukraine in 1895. Yiddish was his first language, and after his parents moved to the U.S., settling in Chicago, he used it in his earliest performances. He made his stage debut at 12, playing an 80-year-old man at a local Yiddish theatre. Early on, he was spotted by Maurice Schwartz (father of Tony Curtis), who took him to New York to perform at his Yiddish Art Theatre. He didn't begin acting in English until he was 31, making his Broadway debut, again as an elderly man, in the play We Americans.
Stage work led to a brief visit to Fox Studios, where his name was changed to Paul Muni (his childhood nickname has been reported as "Muni," "Mooney" and "Munya"). He made his screen debut as a murderer who hands himself into the police but refuses to give his name in The Valiant (1929). His highly praised performance brought him an Oscar® nomination, but the film did poorly at the box office. The same fate befell his second film, Seven Faces (1929), in which he used his make-up skills to play seven different characters. The film's poor box-office performance was no problem for Muni, who was happy to return to the stage.
He had a few flops on Broadway, then scored a major success in Elmer Rice's play Counsellor-at-Law as a high-society lawyer trying to hide his past in the slums and the fact that he is Jewish. That brought Hollywood calling again, and he returned there for two of the most important films of the Great Depression. Warner Bros. more than earned its reputation for filming stories "torn from the headlines" with I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), the true account of a chain-gang prisoner who discovers that slavery is still alive and well in the Georgia prison system. The original book was written by an actual escapee who could only visit the studio incognito. Audiences ate up the tale, with Muni's chilling final line: "I steal." He was voted a second Oscar® nomination and asked to sign a long-term contract with the studio. Before that, he had also made Scarface (1932) for independent producer Howard Hughes. Modeled on the career of Al Capone with a little of the Borgias thrown in, the film was the most violent of the new gangster cycle and was heavily censored across the nation. Yet nobody could deny Muni's strong performance. Considering himself too slight of build for Tony Camonte, he had his suits padded and wore three-to-four-inch lifts in his shoes.
Warner's publicized Muni as "the world's greatest actor," and gave him the vehicles to prove it, starting with The World Changes (1933), a generation-spanning drama in which Muni moves from the Dakota Territory to become the meatpacking king of Chicago. Even when the studio assigned him to a comedy like Hi, Nellie! (1934), it was a class act with a message. Mervyn LeRoy directed him as a crusading editor demoted to writing the advice to the lovelorn column because he won't compromise his principles. The studio teamed him with its top female star, Bette Davis, for Bordertown (1935), with Muni as a disbarred Mexican-American lawyer working in a bar run by the seductive Davis's husband. Next he played a crusading coal miner in Black Fury (1935). Although he wasn't voted an Oscar® nomination, write-in votes were allowed at the time. After the ceremony at which Victor McLaglen was named Best Actor for his performance in The Informer (1935), the Academy® revealed that a write-in for Muni had come in a close second.
After playing a small-town doctor who gets mixed up with gangsters in Dr. Socrates (1935), Muni convinced the studio to take a chance on an historical biography. Warner's had already tried to move from its schedule of contemporary stories with the hit swashbuckler Captain Blood (1935) and the less-successful Shakespeare adaptation A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), but doing a serious historical film was something new for them. The gamble paid off when The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) not only became a hit but won three Oscars®: Best Original Story, Best Screenplay and Best Actor for Muni.
By this point, Muni's films were events. Warner's loaned him to MGM for their film version of The Good Earth (1937), Pearl Buck's tale of a Chinese farming family's rise and fall. As was the practice at the time, all of the principals were Caucasians. They needed name recognition to sell the massive production, and although Muni's name probably was enough to carry the film, the studio couldn't risk censorship, particularly in the South, were he to play love scenes with an Asian actress. Instead, Luise Rainer played his wife and won a Best Actress Oscar®. Muni might have been nominated as well had he not upstaged himself. His nomination for 1937 came for his second biographical film, The Life of Emile Zola. With its focus on the crusading novelist's defense of Albert Dreyfus, the film was another hit. It won the Best Picture Oscar®, while Muni was named Best Actor by the New York Film Critics Circle. For his third biographical role, Muni took on Benito Juarez (1939), often called the Mexican Lincoln for his role in freeing his country from European imperial interests. The original screenplay had been written to balance Juarez's story with that of Emperor Maximilan and his wife, Carlota, who were forced on the Mexican people by France with Brian Aherne and Bette Davis cast as the doomed couple. Somewhere in production, the script was reshaped to shorten their roles and beef up Muni's. The result was not well received by critics and was the least successful of the star's film biographies. By this point, Muni had become dissatisfied with Hollywood life. After a botched James Hilton adaptation, We Are Not Alone (1939), he declined to renew his contract and returned to New York.
For the rest of his career, Muni based himself primarily in New York, working on stage and, when the new medium came along, television. His film appearances were more sporadic but took on the air of special events, as when he returned to Hollywood for a supporting role as Frederic Chopin's mentor in A Song to Remember (1945), starring Cornel Wilde and Merle Oberon. He even undertook a rare comedy, spoofing the gangster genre in Angel on My Shoulder (1946). He stars as a gangster who dies young, prompting Satan (Claude Rains) to send him back to Earth to take over a judge's life.
That would be Muni's last film for 13 years, but he was hardly idle. In the meantime, he appeared on Broadway, scoring his biggest stage triumph as Henry Drummond, the character modeled on Clarence Darrow in Inherit the Wind. The role, which was played by Spencer Tracy in the film version, brought Muni a Tony Award. During the run, he had to leave the role briefly to have an eye removed because of a tumor. He also worked in the Golden Age of Live Television, with appearances on the The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, The Ford Television Theatre and Playhouse 90. For his role in the latter, in the play The Last Clear Chance, he wore what seemed to be a hearing aid. In truth, it was a radio transmitter. There were so many last-minute changes to the script that the aging actor couldn't learn all his lines, so had to have them fed to him (a technique adopted by Marlon Brando in his later years).
In 1959, director Daniel Mann lured the aging actor back before the cameras one final time. Muni had admired the novel The Last Angry Man, a memoir of writer Gerald Green's father, who practiced medicine in a poor, mostly black neighborhood. When Mann offered him the lead in the screen version, he took the chance because he felt the story had something important to say. His performance brought him his fifth Oscar® nomination for Best Actor.
At that point, Muni announced his retirement from stage and screen. Growing problems with his heart made a lengthy shoot or a long run on stage impossible. He came out of retirement only once, for a 1964 guest-starring role on the television series Saints and Sinners, starring Nick Adams as a crusading journalist. Muni lived quietly in his Los Angeles home with his wife of over 40 years, Bella, and passed away in 1967.
Seven years later, Jerome Lawrence, who had co-written Inherit the Wind, published the definitive work on Muni's life, Actor: The Life and Times of Paul Muni. In 1978, Lawrence and his partner, Robert E. Lee, turned the chapters about the actor's early years into the script for a television musical starring Herschel Bernardi and Georgia Brown as his parents and choreographer Michael Kidd as the adult Muni. Yet the ultimate tribute to the actor is the revival of interest in his earlier films. With the rise of film scholarship in America, pictures like Scarface and I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang are viewed as masterpieces of the studio system, with Muni's work hailed for its raw emotional power and the intelligence of his research and acting choices.
TCM's Summer Under the Stars pays tribute to Paul Muni with 13 films -- I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Scarface (1932), The World Changes (1933), Hi, Nellie! (1934), Black Fury (1935), Bordertown (1935), Dr. Socrates (1935), The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), The Good Earth (1937), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Juarez (1939), Angel on My Shoulder (1946) and The Last Angry Man (1959).
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