I was talking to Will last night and the subject of Zero Mostel came up. It was actually a conversation about Mel Brooks and what a total jerk he is. As an example, I talked about his treatment of Mostel during the production of The Producers where the cast and crew divided into two camps: the Zero camp and the petulant manboy camp. Anyway, I had said that Mostel was a legend in New York, and he would have been a huge star had he not been blacklisted.
He was effectively blacklisted long before the official blacklist. He was briefly in the Army, where he was refused a position as entertainment director of Special Services because he was “definitely a Communist.” He went on to entertain the troops for the rest of the war via the USO. But after the war, Hollywood wouldn’t hire him until Elia Kazan hired him for Panic in the Streets. After that, he did a number of movies. It is amazing: then as now, Hollywood is run by a bunch of followers. Regardless, this only lasted for a year before Mostel was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). After that, he didn’t work in Hollywood for another 15 years.
I assume that there is video of his testimony before the HUAC, but I haven’t been able to find it. I did, however, find this amazing clip of Jim Brochu in his one-man play, Zero Hour. He does Mostel really well. Here is the part of it from his testimony before the committee. Take a look; it really is great:
It’s very funny, but it also highlights the absurdity of the committee. These really were show trials without any point but to show how powerful and important the Representatives (and the Senators in the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations) were that they could get people to grovel before them. It was public shaming for the purpose of self-aggrandizement.
Of course, there was another side to it. You can hold a whole nation in line by claiming that any liberal activity—unions, civil rights, anti-war—is really the work of the Great Existential Threat (communism then; simply “liberalism” now, because the word has been so effectively vilified). This is why it was widely claimed that Martin Luther King Jr was a communist. Martin Luther King Jr was not a communist.
And Zero Mostel wasn’t a communist. The HUAC knew this too. He probably was nominally a communist in his youth. But what did it matter in 1952? Nothing. And it is clear today. And future generations will look back on us as the fools we are. Broad swaths of the middle class have been convinced that the real America is some mythic thing that will be found if we just funnel enough money to the super rich. Above all, let us not deal with our real problems. We need more of the same! But that is America in a nutshell: in the 1950s, we pretended to save freedom by destroying it. Now we pretend to save the middle class while destroying it.
And the la-hand of the Freeeeee!
And the hoooome, of thhhhhe, braaaave!