Here are 10 things you should know about Paul Muni, born 124 years ago today. The star of stage and screen was celebrated for his versatility; early in his career, some even compared him to Lon Chaney.
Actor Paul Muni was born Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund in what is now the Ukraine 121 years ago today. Here are 10 PM Did-You-Knows:
- Both of his parents were professional actors in the Yiddish theatre.
- Muni grew up speaking Yiddish. When he was seven, his family left Austria-Hungary and settled in Chicago.
- Beginning in 1908, Muni spent four years with New York’s Yiddish Art Theatre before moving on to work for the next 14 years with other Yiddish theatres in NYC.
- His first English-language role—and Broadway debut—was in a 1926 production of a play called We Americans. Though just 31 years of age, Muni portrayed an elderly man.
- Muni began his motion picture career in 1929, but continued to alternate between the Broadway stage and Hollywood.
- Muni, along with James Dean, is one of just two actors to receive an Oscar nomination for his first film role (The Valiant, 1929) and his last (The Last Angry Man, 1959). Muni totaled six Oscar nominations, winning once (Best Actor in a Leading Role for The Story of Louis Pasteur, 1936).
- Muni’s nickname was Munya.
- Muni suffered his entire life with a rheumatic heart.
- Muni turned down the role of Roy Earle in High Sierra (1941). The part eventually went to Humphrey Bogart.
- In 1956, Muni won the Tony Award for Best Actor (Dramatic) for his role as Henry Drummond in the play Inherit the Wind.
Happy birthday, Paul Muni, wherever you may be!
In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles actress and star of the Yiddish Theatre Molly Picon.
THE GHETTO GIRL
MOLLY PICON. The darling of East Broadway.
She is not quite five feet and weighs a hundred pounds. Wear a size eleven girl’s dress. Her toes never reach the tip of her stockings.
She is always asking questions.
Her one disappointment in life is that she wasn’t born a boy.
Made her stage début as an infant prodigy at amateur nights. In those days she was “Baby Margaret.” Ten years ago in Boston she deserted vaudeville for the Yiddish stage by joining a Jewish burlesque show. She speaks English better than many actors on Broadway.
Has a mania for French dolls. Her apartment is cluttered with them.
She writes the lyrics of all her songs. For every show she learns something new. She can sing, dance, perform feats of magic, play six different musical instruments and do acrobatic tricks.
Hates to talk on the telephone. If she is home alone she never answers the phone but lets it keep on ringing.
In every play she wears a dress suit. She owns one dress suit with three pairs of paints.
Always sits with her feet on the chair.
She is married. When she first met her husband, Jacob Kalish, he never combed his hair, shined his shoes or pressed his trousers. She told him that if he dolled up she’d marry him. He immediately bought three suits and invited her to his house. He then changed suits every half hour. There was nothing left for her to do but marry him. She proudly states that he can make love to her in six different languages.
She carries Jewish luck charms given to her by rabbis.
Whenever she has a new dress she goes to the Royal Café. This is the Reuben’s, Sardi’s and Algonquin of Second Avenue.
Is always putting her fingers in her mouth but never bites her nails.
When it comes to naming a favorite actor and actress, Charlie Chaplin and Helen Hayes head her honor roll.
She has performed in Russia, Roumania, Galicia, Jerusalem and Austria. The results of this tour were a gift from Queen Marie of Roumania, the finding of Joseph Rumshinsky (he now writes the music for all her plays) in Vienna and the naming of two gardens after her in Jerusalem.
During intermission she always drinks a glass of tea with lemon.
Offstage she never uses powder, lipstick or perfume. She doesn’t smoke.
She wears both nightgowns and pajamas. She buys neither. It is the custom of the Yiddish theater to have a “Testimonial Evening” once a month. On these occasions she receives nightgowns and pajamas from admirers.
When she was born the midwife looked at her and said: “Nebesh—poor kid.” Her mother didn’t kiss her until she was a year old.
Is actually afraid of people who talk figures. Has no head for business. Her husband arranges all her financial affairs.
She gets a big kick out of reading poetry and visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her favorite author is Ben Hecht. In her opinion One Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago is one of the finest books ever written.
D. W. Griffith is her most ardent admirer. He intends to star her shortly in a talking picture.
She lives with her husband, mother and sister. Her husband is a part owner of Kessler’s Second Avenue Theatre, where she performs. Her mother is a wardrobe mistress at that theater. Her sister does the cooking for the family. They keep a kosher house. Outside, however, Molly loves to go to a Chinese restaurant and eat roast pork.