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Star of the Month: Paul Muni
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Paul Muni - Mondays in October


Paul Muni, TCM Star of the Month for October, is receiving this honor for the second time (the first was in 2015). But Muni himself always rejected the "star" label. He said once that "If you have to label me anything, I'm an actor, I guess. A journeyman actor. I think 'star' is what you call actors who can't act."

Known as a thoroughgoing professional, Muni immersed himself deeply into his characters, losing himself in their identities long before actors such as Marlon Brando and Daniel Day Lewis made that approach fashionable. Muni frequently played real-life historical characters and spent months researching each of them.

Having grown up in a theatrical setting, he was an expert in such matters as costuming, makeup, accents and dialects. He frequently transformed himself so completely that he was promoted for a time as "the King of Character Actors" or "the new Lon Chaney."

Muni was highly regarded by most critics, although a few thought he overacted. He was also an "actor's actor" who won the respect and admiration of other performers. Brando, who had worked as a young actor with Muni on Broadway, described him as the greatest actor he ever saw. Al Pacino, who starred in a remake of Muni's 1932 Scarface, said that in watching the original he "was completely taken with Paul Muni's performance... I thought, I want to be Paul Muni. I want to act like that!"

Muni was born Frederich Meier Weisenfreund in Lwów Lemberg, Galicia, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on September 22, 1895. His parents were Jewish, and his Hebrew name was Meshilem. From early childhood he performed onstage in Yiddish with his mother and father, who were itinerant actors.

At age five Frederich emigrated to the U.S. with his family, who lived on New York City's Lower East Side and Cleveland, OH, before settling in Chicago. There the family opened their own small theater and Frederich continued his acting career in Yiddish. From his early days as an actor he specialized in character roles, some of them female. At the tender age of 12 he was playing the role of an 80-year-old man!

In his early twenties Muni joined the Yiddish Art Theater and toured with that company in the United States and Europe. In 1921 he wed Bella Finkel, an actress in the Yiddish theater, and would remain married to her for the rest of his life. She was said to be the "guiding light" of his life and career.

At age 31, after years on the Yiddish stage, Muni made his English-speaking debut on Broadway in We Americans, playing an elderly Jewish man and billed as Muni Weisenfrend. (His new first name came from the childhood nickname "Munya," or "Moony.")

By 1929, he was sufficiently established on Broadway to be signed by the Fox Film Corporation, where his name was further simplified and anglicized as Paul Muni. For the rest of his career he would alternate between Hollywood films and the Broadway stage, becoming one of the most distinguished actors in both venues.

Muni made his movie debut in The Valiant (1929), playing a murderer and becoming one of only a handful of performers to be Oscar-nominated as Best Actor for their first film. This movie and a follow-up (Seven Faces, 1929) were not financial successes, but Muni shored up his credentials by returning to Broadway in a major hit, Counselor-at-Law (1931).

1932 was a seminal year for Muni, who returned to films to deliver brilliant performances as a fictionalized version of Al Capone in United Artists' Scarface and a wrongly accused convict in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Both films were highly successful. The latter, which marked Muni's move to Warner Bros., brought his second Best Actor nomination.

The World Changes (1933) is a saga spanning decades and starring Muni as a farmer who finds success in the meat-packing business but clashes with his snobbish wife (Mary Astor). In Hi, Nellie! (1934) he plays a newspaper editor who is reduced to writing an advice-to-the-lovelorn column under the pen name Nellie.

Bordertown (1935) is a melodrama with Muni as a Mexican-American lawyer in Los Angeles who is disbarred and relocates south of the border. There he becomes involved with a ruthless married woman (rising Warner Bros. star Bette Davis). Both stars were well-reviewed, with The New York Times commenting that the film allows Muni "to scrape the nerves in the kind of taut and snarling role at which he is so consummately satisfying."

His other Warner Bros. vehicles of 1935 are Black Fury, in which Muni plays a beleaguered coal miner of Slavic descent; and Dr. Socrates, a crime film in which he is a small-town American doctor forced to treat a wounded gangster (Barton MacLane). For Black Fury he did not receive an official Oscar nomination but was the write-in candidate of some Academy members.

Muni's Academy Award came for The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), a biopic in which he plays the French scientist whose discoveries revolutionized both medicine and agriculture. Muni, who had scrupulously researched Pasteur's life and personality, was praised by Graham Greene as "the greatest living actor" whose depiction reflected "not only the bourgeois, the elderly, the stubborn and bitter and noble little chemist, but his nationality and even his period."

Muni went to MGM to play Wang Lung, the Chinese farmer who is the hero of The Good Earth (1937), a film version of the Pearl S. Buck novel. Back at Warner Bros. he racked up another Oscar nomination for The Life of Emile Zola (1937), in which he plays the 19th-century French author.

Muni was reunited with Bette Davis for Juarez (1939), in which he plays Benito Juárez, the president of Mexico from 1858-72, and she plays his wife, Carlotta. The movie focuses on the conflict between Juárez and Austrian archduke Maximilian (Brian Aherne), a puppet ruler installed by Napoleon III (Claude Rains).

During the 1940s Muni worked frequently at Columbia Pictures, where his vehicles included Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942), as a Norwegian fisherman resisting the Nazis; A Song to Remember (1945), as the devoted teacher of celebrated 19th-century Polish pianist/composer Frédéric Chopin (Cornel Wilde); and Counter-Attack (1945), as a Russian paratrooper trapped by German soldiers during World War II.

For United Artists Muni made Angel on My Shoulder (1946), a rare venture into comedy in which he has a double role as a gangster who is murdered and goes to hell, and a look-alike judge whose body is inhabited by the crook's spirit.

The 1950s saw Muni busy in episodic television. He also continued to perform on Broadway, where he had acted regularly through the decades. He had his biggest stage success in his final Broadway play, Inherit the Wind (1955), winning a Tony Award as Best Actor for his performance as crusading lawyer Henry Drummond.

Muni made only two movies in the '50s: Stranger on the Prowl (1952)--which Muni reportedly made the film as a gesture of solidarity with colleagues (including director Joseph Losey) who were in exile in Italy because of industry blacklisting--and Muni's final film The Last Angry Man (1959). The film brought him one last Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a dedicated, elderly Jewish doctor in an integrated Brooklyn neighborhood who attracts the attention of a maker of TV documentaries (David Wayne). Muni's final TV appearance was on the NBC series Saints and Sinners in 1962.

Paul and Bella Muni, who never had children, were considered to have one of the happiest marriages in movie and theatrical circles. Paul was notoriously shy and liked to live simply, rejecting the typical Hollywood lifestyle and preferring quiet time at home with his wife.

For much of his life Muni was burdened by health problems including a rheumatic heart condition. In 1955 he was diagnosed with a tumor in his left eye, which was removed. In his later years he became increasingly dependent upon his wife, a situation that intensified as his failing eyesight turned to blindness. He died of a heart ailment at age 71 on August 25, 1967, at his home in Santa Barbara, CA, with his wife holding his hand. She died four years later.

Muni always had great respect for filmmaking and remarked once that, although he had no preference between stage and screen work, "It is my opinion that the screen is the ideal medium for bringing great stories of current conditions to the public. To me there is no excuse for a trivial movie. The resources of the screen are so vast, its scope so wide and its technique so flexible that it screams to be important."

by Roger Fristoe
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