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In the late 1960s, Zero Mostel bounced back from the years of professional hardship placed on him by the Hollywood Blacklist through much the same route as other stars who had suffered similarly during the anti-Communist witchhunt - the Broadway and television circuit. A one-man TV special in 1959 broke the years of diminished employment after his refusal to name names to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, followed by a critically acclaimed performance in Waiting for Godot on the Play of the Week series in 1961. The stage successes came with three Tony Award-winning roles in 1961, 1963 and 1965. One of these, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, was made into a film in 1966, restoring Mostel and fellow blacklistee Jack Gilford to careers and critical acclaim on the big screen. With Mel Brooks's The Producers (1968), Mostel was riding high. But his subsequent pictures failed to maintain that status, and after the failure of The Angel Levine (1970), his fortunes slipped once again.
Judging from its credentials, The Angel Levine should have worked. It was based on a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Bernard Malamud, whose other screen adaptations include The Fixer (1968) and The Natural (1984). It was brought to the screen by actor-singer-activist Harry Belafonte, who produced the film as his own return to movies after more than ten years. The story was adapted for film by Emmy-nominated writer Ronald Ribman and actor-director-writer Bill Gunn, who had scripted the satire The Landlord (1970), a well-received and complex examination of American race relations. It was directed by Jan Kadar, whose film The Shop on Main Street (1965) was the first Czech production to win a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar®. It also co-starred not only Ida Kaminska, the Academy-nominated star of the earlier Kadar film, but married couple Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach, two of America's most respected actors, in cameo roles. Yet The Angel Levine failed to find favor with either audiences or critics. It was a great disappointment to Mostel.
It was no less a disappointment to Kadar, who hoped his first American picture would open doors to him in this country after fleeing the political upheavals and subsequent repressions in his home land in 1969. Kadar's family all died in Auschwitz during World War II; although he, too, had been sent to a Nazi labor camp, the future director survived, and after the war he made a documentary short, Life Is Rising from the Ruins (1945). His career took off in the early 1950s with a long and fruitful collaboration with Elmar Klos, with whom he co-wrote and co-directed a number of documentaries and features, culminating in the international success of The Shop on Main Street (1965). The partnership ended with Kadar's emigration to the U.S. The offer from Belafonte to take on this tale of an elderly Jewish couple (Mostel and Kaminska) who are visited and helped by a Black Jewish angel (Belafonte) raised his hopes for a Hollywood career, but when the picture failed to click, further assignments were not forthcoming. He then went to Canada, where he released a far more acclaimed film, Lies My Father Told Me (1975). He made three more movies, all for television, before his death in 1979.
Kadar wanted Mostel to appear in Lies My Father Told Me, and initially the actor agreed. But whenever he got together with Kadar and writer Ted Allan, Mostel reputedly made so many suggestions about the approach to the story and so many demands for script changes that Allan apparently retorted in frustration, "Zero, this picture is about my childhood, not yours." Mostel also decided to hold out for a much bigger salary than he was offered for the independent Canadian production, refusing to sign a contract or show up for the first day of shooting. When he did finally appear on set, he was told another actor had been given the part. Mostel was furious, but without a contract, he had no case. His next job would be a relatively minor role in the Robert Redford-George Segal caper comedy The Hot Rock (1972).
The Angel Levine also features, in the role of Sally, the young African-American actress Gloria Foster. Viewers will likely recognize her as the Oracle in the first two Matrix movies. She died shortly after production began on the third film in the series and was replaced by Mary Alice.
Director: Jan Kadar
Producer: Chiz Schultz, Harry Belafonte (uncredited)
Screenplay: Bill Gunn, Ronald Ribman, based on the book by Bernard Malamud
Cinematography: Richard Kratina
Editing: Carl Lerner
Art Direction: John Jay Moore
Original Music: Zdenek Liska
Cast: Zero Mostel (Morris Mishkin), Harry Belafonte (Alexander Levine), Ida Kaminska (Fanny Mishkin), Milo O'Shea (Dr. Arnold Berg), Gloria Foster (Sally).
by Rob Nixon