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Paul Muni Profile
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Paul Muni Profile

"All I know about acting is that you must work conscientiously. Don't underestimate the intelligence of your audience - and don't cheat."

Paul Muni was born Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund in Lemberg, Austria-Hungary (now Lviv, Ukraine) on September 22, 1895. His parents, Salli and Phillip Weisenfreund were Jewish actors travelling through Europe while appearing in Ghetto theaters. They immigrated to America when their three sons were still young, joining the Yiddish Theater group located in the Bowery section of New York. While his parents were performing in Cleveland in the play Two Corpses at the Breakfast Table , eleven-year-old Muni had his theatrical debut. A character actor playing an elderly banker became ill before the performance and there was no one else to play the role. Muni's performance was so good that he continued in the role when the company went back to New York. After the run of the play, he returned to school, as his parents did not want their children to be actors; they wanted them to be musicians. Thirteen-year-old Muni decided that he would not continue his violin lessons because he wanted to become an actor. Angered, his father reportedly broke his violin and refused to speak to him for a time. When he calmed down and realized his son could not be dissuaded, he said, "Well, if you're going to be an actor, don't be a ham."

Muni's father was a member of the Yiddish Art Theater in New York where his son began to learn his craft. A short time later, the Weisenfreund's moved to Chicago and started their own theater at Twelfth and Halsted, where their son appeared. When he was fifteen, Muni's father died. His mother decided to return to New York, but Muni stayed in Chicago. He would spend the next decade and a half working as an actor in traveling shows in the Midwest and a year at the Girard Street Theater in Philadelphia. After returning to New York, he worked seven years in the stock company of the Yiddish Art Theater.

Muni's break came when a theatrical scout thought of him for the part of an old Jewish man in the Broadway play We Americans [1926]. When Muni showed up, a young man of thirty-one, the producer tried to dismiss him immediately, but Muni made himself up to look old before his eyes. His talent won over the producer and he secured the role. It was the first time Muni (now re-named Paul Muni) had ever performed in English.

Hollywood in the late 1920s - early 1930s was on the lookout for theatrical talent, now that talking films had come to stay. He was brought to the Fox Film Corporation to make the film The Valiant [1929] which earned him an Academy Award nomination and Seven Faces [1929], showcasing his ability to play different roles: he was required to play Napoleon, Don Juan, and Franz Schubert, among others. The film turned out not to be successful and dissatisfied with the offers he was receiving in Hollywood, Muni returned to the Broadway stage. A year later he was recruited by director Howard Hawks to make the film that launched his career in Hollywood: Scarface [1932]. Ironically it was his wife who accepted the part on his behalf, writing to her husband, "I have sold you down the river. Come home. We're leaving for Hollywood tomorrow."

It was a role that he did not want. Hawks went to visit Muni to convince him to take it, but Muni refused. "He was very pleasant and smiled but said he couldn't play that kind of man, he wasn't that kind of person, he wasn't physically strong enough. Besides, he protested that [James] Cagney had made The Public Enemy [1931], and [Edward G.] Robinson had made Little Caesar [1931]. What more could be done in Scarface that hadn't already been done?" Hawks convinced Muni to make a screen test and writer Ben Hecht brought Muni to his house in Nyack, New York and "taught him how to throw a right hook punch to the belly, so he would seem like a fighter." As Todd McCarthy wrote in his biography of Hawks, "Hawks prepared to shoot the test in late April [1931]. He rented a tiny studio, designed a padded suit that would give the actor more bulk, hired other actors who were shorter than Muni and even decided to put him on raised boards to increase his stature. The results of the silent test, in addition to his favorable opinion of the script and his faith in Hawks, convinced Muni to take the part. [Howard] Hughes requested further tests.... Variety reported on May 17 that Hawks was finally leaving New York 'after making further Muni tests.' As for salary, Hughes offered the actor $20,000 but Muni held out for $27,500 and began reading and learning everything he could about [Al] Capone." Because of censorship fears, the film was held back from release for several months, during which time Muni returned to Broadway to appear in Counselor at Law which electrified the critics. When Scarface was finally released in movie theaters, it became an overnight sensation and along with it, Paul Muni.

This film was followed with the socially-conscious film I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang [1932], based on the autobiographical novel by Robert E. Burns. Burns was convicted of stealing $5 in a robbery and sentenced to a Georgia chain gang. He escaped to New Jersey where he lived as an editor for ten years before his ex-wife turned him in. He managed to escape once again and with the help of three New Jersey governors managed to avoid extradition back to Georgia. Burns went to Hollywood undercover to work on the film for a time but the stress made him return to New Jersey where he was safe. While Burns was guilty, Muni's character is an innocent man sent to prison on a chain gang. There, the horrific conditions change him. At the end, he manages to escape but is not exonerated. The final haunting line is delivered as Muni fades into the shadows (accidentally caused by a burnt out lighting fuse but so powerful that director Mervyn LeRoy decided to keep the take). He is asked, "How do you live?" Muni hisses, "I steal." It is a harsh film, even by today's standards. Unlike many films in the Golden Age of Hollywood, it did not have a happy ending, but it did manage to change public opinion on the chain gang system.

Muni was always more interested in being an actor and in being given roles that allowed him to use his talents, rather than be a leading man or a star. "I think a star is what you call an actor who can't act," he once said. He preferred roles in which he could merge with the character, one that required extensive makeup and vocal characterizations. As Myrtle Lecky Grimshaw wrote in her portrait of him, "When Muni has a new part to play; he first looks for lines of kinship between his own personality and that of the one he is to portray. He believes that every part he plays opens up reservoirs of feeling within himself - feelings which may be inactive and well hidden, but which are nevertheless present. These feelings are so stimulated by his intellectual understanding of the character that Muni naturally reacts as would the portrayed character in the same situations. When he portrays Pasteur, or Zola, or the English doctor in We Are Not Alone [1939], he is still Paul Muni - but Paul Muni reacting exactly as the character he is portraying reacted to life and its various situations. No amount of analysis can exactly explain Paul Muni's art nor make clear just how he creates these living personalities. After all, he has never read a book on acting and does not know just how he does it."

Warner Bros. were so impressed with his performance that they signed him to a long-term contract. It was Muni who convinced the studio to make an historical film, The Story of Louis Pasteur [1935] rather than the gritty contemporary films that made them famous. The film was a smash, earned Muni an Academy Award® for Best Actor, and the studio immediately searched for other historical figures for him to portray.

The Life of Emile Zola [1937] required a nearly seven minute speech which took him days to perfect. "I had to learn the speech so well that when I was addressing the jury I would never at any time realize that I was an actor delivering the lines. I must be Zola, fighting for justice for Captain Dreyfus who was suffering on Devil's Island." Muni's penchant for knowing his lines frightened child actress Marcia Mae Jones before she met him on the set. "It started with the dialogue man saying, 'Mr. Muni does not want to work with anybody who doesn't know their lines.' Then the director said the same thing. Then my mother said it. Then the assistant director. I was a nervous wreck. So now I am to carry this tray of dishes down the hall. I'm shaking because I'm so nervous, and these dishes are rattling. I go in and guess who misses their lines? Paul Muni. And from then on I thought he was terrific. He was very nice to me."

Unlike many other actors, Muni was encouraging to his fellow performers, especially younger players like Bette Davis, who remembered, "I met Paul Muni on Bordertown [1935]. One of the most intelligent persons with scripts I have ever in my life known. At the end of Bordertown, Mr. Muni said to me, 'Don't ever bother with a director again. You don't need it.' Now, I'm a kid, but I said, 'Mr. Muni, the day will never come that I won't need a director and not want one.' And to this day I can get through anything because I've had enough experience. I can be a hundred times better than some directors. But believe you me, I do not want to do it alone. My director on Bordertown was Archie Mayo. Archie was never a great director but he was a very proficient motion picture maker. Fat, jolly, cute man. For Muni with an Archie Mayo, it was self-preservation. All those Warner directors, Lloyd Bacon, Archie Mayo, Alfred Green, Michael Curtiz - all smashing moviemakers, but if you were an artist like Muni, you had to protect your own performance....As a kid, Bordertown was a great experience for me, because I feel Paul Muni was the first real honest-to-God star I ever worked with....Muni appreciated, for instance, when my character woke up in the middle of the night with grease on her face and curlers in her hair. I had a two-day fight with Warners. [Producer Hal] Wallis came on the set and said, 'You can't look like that on the screen.' 'Well,' I said, 'you don't want me to look like this, I'm going home. That's how this bitch would look in the middle of the night.' You see, nobody did that in those days. I think that's why Muni thought I really had something, and he stood up for me. I think of him many, many times during my life."

By the end of the decade and despite a weekly salary of $11,500, Muni chose not to renew his contract with Warner Bros. He appeared in films sporadically after that, most notably as Chopin's teacher in A Song to Remember [1945] and in the dual role of a gangster brought back from Hell to impersonate a judge in Angel on My Shoulder [1946]. Muni preferred the stage, where he would have his biggest hit, appearing as Clarence Darrow in Inherit the Wind (for which he won the 1956 Tony Award). He would occasionally appear on television in shows such as Playhouse 90 and The General Electric Theater, but his heart was in the theater. Muni's final film was The Last Angry Man [1959] in which he played a doctor in a depressed neighborhood. He was once again nominated for an Academy Award, making him one of the few actors nominated for his first and his last film. In total, Paul Muni had five nominations (including The Valiant, I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Black Fury [1935], and The Life of Emile Zola ) not counting his win for The Story of Louis Pasteur.

By the mid-1960s, Muni's health and eyesight had begun to fail, making it necessary for him to retire. Paul Muni died on August 25, 1967 in Montecito, California from a heart ailment (he had suffered from a rheumatic heart for most of his life). He was survived by his wife of forty-five years, Bella Finkle, who had also acted as his manager.

by Lorraine LoBianco

Paul Muni: Master Character Actor by Myrtle Lecky Grimshaw
Distinguished American Jews by Philip Henry Lotz
The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis: A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler
Leading Men: the 50 Most Unforgettable Actors of the Studio Era by Frank Miller
The Internet Movie Database
Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood by Todd McCarthy

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