Paul Muni

For the comedy writer and actor, see Paul Mooney (comedian).
Paul Muni

Paul Muni in 1936
Born Frederich Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund
(1895-09-22)September 22, 1895
Lemberg, Austro-Hungarian Empire (present day Lviv, Ukraine)
Died August 25, 1967(1967-08-25) (aged 71)
Montecito, California, U.S.
Other names Muni Weisenfreund
Occupation Actor
Years active 1908-62
Spouse(s) Bella Finkel (1921-1967; his death)

Paul Muni (born Frederich Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund; September 22, 1895 – August 25, 1967) was an American stage and film actor who grew up in Chicago. He started his acting career in the Yiddish theatre. During the 1930s, he was considered one of the most prestigious actors at Warner Brothers studios, and was given the rare privilege of choosing which parts he wanted.

His acting quality, usually playing a powerful character, such as the lead in Scarface (1932), was partly a result of his intense preparation for his parts, often immersing himself in study of the real character's traits and mannerisms. He was also highly skilled in using makeup techniques, a talent he learned from his parents, who were also actors, and from his early years on stage with the Yiddish Theater in Chicago. At the age of 12, he played the stage role of an 80-year-old man; in one of his films, Seven Faces, he played seven different characters.

He made 25 films and won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the 1936 film The Story of Louis Pasteur. He also starred in numerous Broadway plays and won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for his role in the 1955 production of Inherit the Wind.

Early life and career

His Hebrew name was Meshilem; he was also called Frederich Meier Weisenfreund, born to a Jewish family in Lemberg, Galicia, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (It is now Lviv, Ukraine). His parents were Salli and Phillip Weisenfreund.[1] He learned Yiddish as his first language. When he was seven, he emigrated with his family to the United States in 1902; they settled in Chicago.

His makeup skills were used for The Story of Louis Pasteur

As a boy, he was known as "Moony".[2] He started his acting career in the Yiddish theatre in Chicago with his parents, who were both actors. As a teenager, he developed a skill in creating makeup, which enabled him to play much older characters.[3] Film historian Robert Osborne notes that Muni's makeup skills were so creative, that for most of his roles, "he transformed his appearance so completely, he was dubbed 'the New Lon Chaney.'"[4] In his first stage role at the age of 12, Muni played the role of an 80-year-old man.[4]

He was quickly recognized by Maurice Schwartz, who signed him up with his Yiddish Art Theater.[5] Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni were cousins to Charles M. Fritz, who was a notable actor during the Great Depression.

A 1925 New York Times article singled out his and Sam Kasten's performances at the People's Theater as among the highlights of that year's Yiddish theater season, describing them as second only to Ludwig Satz.

Muni began acting on Broadway in 1926. His first role was that of an elderly Jewish man in the play We Americans, written by playwrights Max Siegel and Milton Herbert Gropper. It was the first time that he ever acted in English.

In 1921, he married Bella Finkel (February 8, 1898 – October 1, 1971), an actress in the Yiddish theatre. They remained married until Muni's death in 1967.


In 1929 Muni was signed by Fox. His name was simplified and anglicized to Paul Muni (he had the nickname "Moony" when young). His acting talents were quickly recognized and he received an Oscar nomination for his first film, The Valiant (1929), although the film did poorly at the box office.[3] His second film, Seven Faces (also 1929), was also a financial failure. Unhappy with the roles offered him, he returned to Broadway, where he starred in a major hit play, Counselor at Law.[4]

Paul Muni soon returned to Hollywood to star in such harrowing pre-Code films as the original Scarface and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (both 1932). For the second, he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor. The acclaim that Muni received as a result of this performance so impressed Warner Brothers, that they signed him to a long-term contract, publicizing him as "the screen's greatest actor."[4]

"I had been wanting to see Scarface since 1974...The film just stopped me in my tracks. All I wanted to do was imitate Paul Muni. His acting went beyond the boundaries of naturalism into another kind of expression. It was almost abstract what he did. It was almost uplifting."

Al Pacino[6]

Scarface, part of a cycle of gangster films at the time,[7] was written by Ben Hecht[8]:6 and directed by Howard Hawks. Critic Richard Corliss noted in 1974 that, while it was a serious gangster film, it also "manages both to congratulate journalism for its importance and to chastise it for its chicanery, by underlining the newspapers' complicity in promoting the underworld image." [8] :10

In 1935, Muni persuaded Warner Bros. to take a financial risk by producing the historical biography, The Story of Louis Pasteur. This became Muni's first of many biographical roles. He starred as a crusading scientist who fights derision in his native country to prove that his medical theories will save lives. Until that film, most Warner Bros. stories originated from current events and major news stories, with the notable exceptions of George Arliss's earlier biographical films Disraeli, Alexander Hamilton, and Voltaire. The sudden success of Pasteur gave Warner's "box office gold", notes Osborne.[4] Muni won an Oscar for his performance (as had Arliss for his performance in Disraeli six years earlier).

He played other historical figures, including Émile Zola, a "man of conscience", in The Life of Emile Zola (1937), for which he was nominated for an Oscar.[9] The film won Best Picture and was interpreted as indirectly attacking the repression of Nazi Germany.[9] He also played the lead role in Juarez (1939).

In 1937, Muni played a Chinese peasant, with a new bride, in a film adaptation of Pearl Buck's novel, The Good Earth. It co-starred Luise Rainer as his wife; she won an Academy Award for her part. The film was a re-creation of a revolutionary period in China, and included special effects for a locust attack and the overthrow of the government. Because Muni was not of Asian descent, when producer Irving Thalberg offered him the role, he said, "I'm about as Chinese as [President] Herbert Hoover."[4]

Dissatisfied with life in Hollywood, Muni chose not to renew his contract. He returned to the screen only occasionally in later years, for such roles as Frédéric Chopin's teacher in A Song to Remember (1945). In 1946, he starred in a rare comic performance, Angel on My Shoulder, playing a gangster whose early death prompts the Devil (played by Claude Rains) to make mischief by putting his soul into the body of a judge. His new identity turns the former criminal into a model citizen.

Later career

New York City opening of A Flag is Born (1946)

Muni then focused most of his energies on stage work, and occasionally on television roles. In 1946, he appeared on Broadway in A Flag is Born, written by Ben Hecht, to help promote the creation of a Jewish state in Israel.[10] This play was directed by Luther Adler and co-starred Marlon Brando. Years later, in response to a question put to him by Alan King, Brando stated that Muni was the greatest actor he ever saw. At London's Phoenix Theatre on July 28, 1949, Muni began a run as Willy Loman in the first English production of Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. He took over from Lee J. Cobb, who had played the principal role in the original Broadway production. Both productions were directed by Elia Kazan.

A few years later, during 1955 and 1956, Muni had his biggest stage success in the United States as the crusading lawyer, Henry Drummond (based on Clarence Darrow), in Inherit the Wind, winning a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play. In late August 1955, Muni was forced to withdraw from the play, due to a serious eye ailment causing deterioration in his eyesight. He was later replaced by actor Melvyn Douglas.[11]

In early September 1955, Muni, then 59 years old, was diagnosed with a tumor of the left eye. The eye was removed in an operation at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. His right eye was reported to be normal.[12] In early December 1955, Muni returned to his starring role as Henry Drummond in the play Inherit the Wind.[13]

His last movie role was as an aging doctor in The Last Angry Man (1959), and he was again nominated for an Oscar. After that, Muni mostly retired from acting to deal with failing eyesight and other health problems.[4] He made his final screen appearance on television, in a guest role on the dramatic series Saints and Sinners in 1962.

Acting techniques, reputation and legacy

Paul Muni in the trailer for Scarface.

Muni was noted for his intense preparation for his roles, especially the biographies. While preparing for The Story of Louis Pasteur, Muni said, "I read most everything that was in the library, and everything I could lay my hands on that had to do with Pasteur, with Lister, or with his contemporaries."[14] He did the same in preparing for his role as Henry Drummond, based on Clarence Darrow, in the play Inherit the Wind. He read what he could find, talked to people who knew Darrow personally, and studied physical mannerisms from photographs of him. "To Paul Muni, acting was not just a career, but an obsession", writes the New York Times. They note that despite his enormous success both on Broadway and in films, "he threw himself into each role with a sense of dedication." Playwright Arthur Miller commented that Muni "was pursued by a fear of failure."[14]

As Muni was born into an acting family, with both of his parents professional actors, "he learned his craft carefully and thoroughly." On stage, "a Muni whisper could reach the last balcony of any theater", writes the Times. It wrote that his style "had drawn into it the warmth of the Yiddish stage", in which he made his debut at the age of 12. In addition, his technique in using makeup "was a work of art." Combined with acting which followed no "method", he perfected his control of voice and gestures into an acting style that was "unique."[14]

Film historian David Shipman described Muni as "an actor of great integrity",[15] noting he meticulously prepared for his roles. Muni was widely recognized as eccentric if talented: he objected to anyone wearing red in his presence, but at the same time could often be found between sessions playing his violin. Over the years he became increasingly dependent on his wife, Bella, a dependence which increased as his failing eyesight turned to blindness in his final years.[15] Muni was "inflexible on matters of taste and principle", once turning down an $800,000 movie contract because he wasn't happy with the studio's choice of film roles.[14]

Although Muni was considered one of the best film actors of the 1930s, he has gained a bad reputation for his performances by film critics such as David Thomson and Andrew Sarris, who accuse him of overacting too much.

German director William Dieterle, who directed him in his three biopics, also frequently accused him of overacting, despite his respect for the actor.[16]

Personal life

In his private life, Muni was considered "exceedingly shy", and was discomfited to be recognized while out shopping or dining. He enjoyed reading and going for walks with his wife in secluded sections of Central Park. He always arrived at the theater by 7:30pm to prepare for that night's performance. After retiring from acting, he lived in California, in what was considered an "austere" setting, where he and his wife enjoyed their privacy. In his den, which he called his "Shangri-La", he spent time reading books and listening to the radio.[14] Muni died of a heart disorder in Montecito in 1967, aged 71. He is interred in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Hollywood, CA.

Legacy and honors

Muni has four official Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, winning for The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and receiving official nominations for The Valiant (1929), The Life of Emile Zola (1937) and The Last Angry Man (1959). His nomination for the film I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) is unofficial. The reason for this being that at the 2nd Academy Awards no acting nominees were announced, only the Best Actor and Actress winners were announced, with the Academy Awards official site stating "Although not official nominations, the additional names in each category, according to in-house records, were under consideration by various boards of judges".[17] Muni's performance in Black Fury was not nominated for an Oscar (see note below filmography).

Cultural references

Referring to his childhood during the Great Depression, Hawkeye Pierce in the “Hawkeye” episode of the television series M*A*S*H*, said, “You knew where you stood in those days. Franklin Roosevelt was always president, Joe Louis was always the champ, and Paul Muni played everybody.” [19]

Muni as well as George Raft appeared as characters in the 5th season of Boardwalk Empire meeting with Capone to discuss the film Scarface.[20]


Year Film Role Notes
1929 The Valiant James Dyke Nominated Academy Award for Best Actor
Seven Faces Papa Chibou, Diablero, Willie Smith,
Franz Schubert, Don Juan, Joe Gans, Napoleon
1932 Scarface Antonio "Tony" Camonte
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang James Allen Nominated Academy Award for Best Actor
1933 The World Changes Orin Nordholm Jr.
1934 Hi, Nellie! Brad Bradshaw
1935 Bordertown Johnny Ramirez
Black Fury [lower-alpha 1] Joe Radek
Dr. Socrates Dr. Lee Cardwell, nicknamed "Dr. Socrates"
1936 The Story of Louis Pasteur Louis Pasteur Academy Award for Best Actor
Volpi Cup for Best Actor
1937 The Good Earth Wang Released in sepia tone
The Woman I Love Lt. Claude Maury
The Life of Emile Zola Émile Zola New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor
Nominated Academy Award for Best Actor
1939 Juarez Benito Juárez
We Are Not Alone Dr. David Newcome
1941 Hudson's Bay Pierre-Esprit Radisson
1942 Commandos Strike at Dawn Erik Toresen
1943 Stage Door Canteen Himself
1945 A Song to Remember Prof. Joseph Elsner Filmed in Technicolor
Counter-Attack Alexei Kulkov
1946 Angel on My Shoulder Eddie Kagle/Judge Fredrick Parker
1952 Imbarco a mezzanotte The Stranger With A Gun called Stranger on the Prowl in the U.S.
1959 The Last Angry Man Dr. Sam Abelman Mar del Plata Film Festival Award for Best Actor
Nominated — Academy Award for Best Actor
Nominated — New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor


  1. Muni was not nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Black Fury. For two years only, the Academy allowed a write-in vote. This meant that technically, any performance was eligible for an award. This decision was made in 1935 in response to the controversy surrounding Bette Davis failing to get a nomination for her performance in Of Human Bondage. Muni came in 2nd in the vote for Best Actor, but the Academy does not recognize Muni or Davis as nominees in those years.[21]

See also


  2. [Adler, Jacob, A Life on the Stage: A Memoir], translated and with commentary by Lulla Rosenfeld, Knopf, New York, 1999, ISBN 0-679-41351-0. Note on p 377: "... Muni Weisenfreund, now Paul Muni".
  3. 1 2 International Dictionary of Actors and Actresses - Actors and Actresses, 3rd Ed., St. James Press, 1997, pp. 858-859
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Osborne, Robert; Miller, Frank. Leading Men: The 50 Most Unforgettable Actors of the Studio Era, Chronicle Books, 2006, pp. 153-155
  5. STRAUSS, THEODORE (December 17, 1939). "PAUL MUNI, LESS THE 'MR.,' RETURNS; PAUL MUNI, LESS THE 'MR.,' RETURNS TO TOWN". New York Times. Retrieved April 1, 2010.
  6. Tucker, Ken. Scarface Nation: The Ultimate Gangster Movie and How It Changed America, Macmillan (2011) e-book
  7. See also Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (both 1931).
  8. 1 2 Corliss, Richard, Talking Pictures, (1974) Overlook Press
  9. 1 2 David Denby, "Hitler in Hollywood"], The New Yorker, September 16, 2013
  10. A Flag Is Born, David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, April 2004
  11. "Paul Muni Quits Broadway Play; Has Eye Ailment", Toledo Blade newspaper, August 31, 1955
  12. "Paul Muni Loses Left Eye to Tumor", Milwaukee Sentinel, September 7, 1955
  13. "Ovation Greets Paul Muni On Return To Play", Toledo Blade newspaper, December 2, 1955
  14. 1 2 3 4 5 New York Times, Obituary, August 26, 1967
  15. 1 2 David Shipman The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years, London: Macdonald, 1989, p.434, 437
  16. Gemünden, Gerd (2014). "Continental Strangers: German Exile Cinema, 1933-1951". McFarland. ISBN 978-0231166799.
  17. "1928/29 2nd Academy Awards". Academy Awards Database. 24 September 2014.
  18. "Anecdotes of the Famous: Keeping Cool". The Milwaukee Journal. January 6, 1976. p. 40. Retrieved September 27, 2015 via Google News Archive.
  21. "Academy Awards statistics". Academy Awards Database. Retrieved 24 September 2014.

Further reading

  • Druxman, Michael B (1974). Paul Muni : his life and his films. South Brunswick: A.S. Barnes. ISBN 9780498014130. OCLC 762401. 
  • Fárberman, Boris; Muni, Paul (1970). Paul Muni (in Spanish). Buenos Aires: Ejecutivo Sudamericano del Congreso Judío Mundial. OCLC 7019258. 
  • Gerlach, Michael Christopher (1971). The acting of Paul Muni (Thesis). Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan. OCLC 6840065. 
  • Lawrence, Jerome (1974). Actor: The Life and Times of Paul Muni. News York, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. ISBN 9780399113413. OCLC 1083129. 
  • Grimshaw, Myrtle Lecky (1945). "Paul Muni, Master Character Actor". In Lotz, Philip Henry. Distinguished American Jews. Creative Personalities Series. 6. New York: Association Press. OCLC 2055635. 
  • Melamed, S.M., "The Yiddish Stage", The New York Times, September 27, 1925 (X2)
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