Zero tolerance

There should be clowns. Nah. Not the red-and-white faced monstrosities of the circus. Nor, though they have their place, the cheeky, impish types, as the young Michael Crawford, or Harry Hill.

No, i’m thinking puggish more than puckish. The much-missed lugubriosity of the likes of Frankie Howerd and Clem Freud. And of course, Zero Mostel.

I was reminded of the latter, last night, on the way back from London. Something late night and middle brow was on the radio, and somewhere on the playlist was a recording from the original “Fiddler on the Roof”, starring the aforementioned Zero, in the lead role of Tevye – and Maria Kamilova as his wife.

It is still one of my favourite musicals of all time, with a weepy count (in terms of numbers that have you in tears) that surpasses almost any other i know.

It was also one of the highpoints of Zero’s career – at least as far as box office was concerned. Two others, for which he is probably better known are the role of Max Bialystock, in the Producers (1968).

Less well-known, perhaps, and a role that he did not initially want to take on was that of Pseudolus, the crooked slave, in Sondheim’s “A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum”. Still, in my opinion, one of Sondheim’s more under-rated works. Because it doesn’t come with pretentious gimmicks attached. (And the film version did include a wonderful cameo from another of nature’s lugubrious types: Buster Keaton).

“A funny thing…” essentially relaunched Zero’s career with the accolade of a Tony Award, which might have been some small compensation for what Hollywood did to him in the ’50’s.

Because…because like “Fatty” Arbuckle before him, Zero fell foul of the studio’s grovelling need not to rock the boat of US public opinion in any way.

Almost impossible for us to credit now, throughout the 50’s, the House Unamerican Activities Committee, under the tutelage of monster, Senator Joseph McCarthy, cut a swathe through hollywood’s finest.

Public figures – including writers, producers and actors – were challenged to state that they were not now and never had been a supporter of the communist party: then, they were asked to denounce other creative types who might have been.

Some were taken down by false accusations. Others, like Zero, saw their careers destroyed – or put on hold indefinitely – because they “took the fifth”. They stood on their right not to say anything – and were instantly persona non grata in the film world.

Zero went from rising star in the late ’40’s to, well, zero in the ’50’s. His film career was over for the best part of 9 years.

Some faded away and never came back. Zero didn’t, enjoying at least fifteen years of the fame that was his due before his untimely death in the late ’70’s.

What i love most about him was not just his comedy, but his willingness to use comedy to defend what he believed in.

Challenged by the HUAC’s Chair to declare whether he was a communist, Zero jumped up from his chair sent the microphone’s flying and went for the throat of committee’s attorney shouting, “That man called me a Communist! Get him out of here! He asked me if I’m a Communist! Get him out of here!”


I wonder how many of today’s comedians would be quite so brave.


Here’s a dramatised version of HUAC testimony:


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