Those seeking another look at one of theatre's most outsized and unforgettable personalities might want to check out "Zero Dances: A Biography of Zero Mostel," by Arthur Sainer.
Ever the center of attention, even as a struggling art student coming from an Orthodox Jewish home, Mostel quickly rose to prominence in the club circuit. Just as film stardom was about to take hold, Senator Joseph McCarthy began decimating the New York acting community. Mostel's film career would never quite recover. He would also spend years recuperating from being hit by a bus, an incident that nearly cost him a leg.
That said, the actor created a small but extraordinary gallery of stage characters, from Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof to Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum to Leo Bloom in Ulysses in Nighttown. Ironically, Mostel's best-loved film role had him playing opposite a character named Bloom. That was, of course, "The Producers," Mel Brooks' masterpiece homage to Broadway bad taste. Other major Mostel film roles included recreating Pseudolus in the poorly received film version of Forum, and Hecky Brown in the McCarthy era comedy/drama, "The Front."
Sainer's biography of Mostel (born Samuel Mostel, by the way) concentrates on the actor's home life -- including his unhappy first marriage and badly strained relationship with his sons -- as well as the nature of his character as expressed in his paintings and performances. Many interviews are conducted with those who remember him from his happiest times when vacationing later in life.
Author Sainer is a former drama critic for the Village Voice who now teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. His "The New Radical Theatre Notebook" was published in 1997. "Zero Dances" is published by Limelight Editions (416 pp., $30), an imprint of Proscenium Publishers Inc.
-- By David Lefkowitz