It’s easy to forget that Zero Mostel (1915-1977), whose 103rd birthday is today, wasn’t always, as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Fiddler on the Roof producer Harold Prince calls him in his updated show-business memoir Sense of Occasion, an “outsized, larger-than-life figure.” Just take a look at his appealing character work in such early-career films as Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), Panic in the Streets (1950) and The Model and the Marriage Broker (1951) and you see a splendid ensemble player. After the 1950s HUAC blacklist scarred his career, however, his phoenix-like and undoubtedly defiant reemergence as a “powerful presence” is what we remember most readily. And it is in that vein – post-Rhinoceros (1961 stage/1974 screen), Forum (1962 stage/1966 screen), Fiddler (1964 stage) and The Producers (1968 film) – that he comes into view in his full Mostelian might, drawing from his own life experiences and playing a role that taps into his innate humor, inbred orneriness, playful delicateness and aching poignancy, tragically just a year before he died while out of town in a pre-Broadway production of Arnold Wesker’s Shakespearean reinvention The Merchant, in which he might have created another indelible character for his portfolio.
For The Front (1976), screenwriter Walter Bernstein and director Martin Ritt, both career-blighted by the blacklist and desirous of telling an entertaining but impactful study of that censorious dark period, crafted a primary seriocomic storyline of Manhattan cashier Howard Prince (Woody Allen), who serves as the “front man” for a blacklisted television dramatist (Michael Murphy) and suddenly and troublesomely gets drawn into the fast-lane limelight – and quite over his head. But giving the tale heft, literally as well as figuratively, was the character of the comic Hecky Brown (tailor-made for the galvanic Mostel), a crowd-pleasing entertainer who finds his opportunities being sapped away by the shadowy intrusion of government investigators looking into his fleeting flirtations years earlier in left-wing causes, now interpreted as “Communist affiliations.” Mostel, channeling his own Cold War era encounters with the HUAC interrogators, makes his bewilderment and dismay crushingly real, when he responds to his ice-veined questioner: “We were all on the same side, weren’t we?” In another close-to-the-bone sequence, Brown, already guilt-ridden by being recruited to inform on his best friend, becomes unhinged when his payment for a nightclub gig is short-changed, and he reluctantly, desperately tries to eke information out of the frustrated Prince, who’d rather steer clear of anything political. It’s a stunning Job-like portrait of a humiliated man driven to a dreadful, self-destructive fall by a nasty climate of fear, and when he resolves not to take it any more, Brown later bids Howard goodbye, with the pointed warning, “Be careful. There are sharks out there.” Available on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray (available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/26669/THE-FRONT-1976/), the work of birthday honoree Mostel is a stellar reason The Front cuts deep. Watch for another great Mostel title later this year.