Zero Mostel is a compulsively funny man, a purveyor of ecstasy as well as comedy. In the theater and on film he has beguiled and tickled millions with such classics as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Rhinoceros, Fiddler on the Roof and most recently on Broadway Ulysses in Nighttown. Now Zero has become, as well, an author-educator. He has a new book, prepared in collaboration with veteran writer George Mendoza, called The Sesame Street Book of Opposites. The rationale for the book, Zero explains with utmost seriousness, is that he was born Sam Mostel in the sleazy Brownsville section of Brooklyn and rechristened himself Zero because of his abysmal elementary school grades. He now wants to make an educational bequest to a new generation by extrapolating Zero.
The book, in pictures of purely Mostellian antics, depicts the differences between up and down, hot and cold, come and go, happy and sad, wet and dry, far and near, short and tall, and so on to the far reaches of Zero’s imagination. Though it’s an amusing book for adults to scan, it promises to be a scoot-away best-seller with the Sesame Street set.
Portly, balding, baggy-panted, the new author continues to look like the owner of one of the Jewish delicatessens he patronizes with gustatory abandon. Whether talking about the book or anything else that intrigues him, the googly eyes and electric mustache turn on, and he invokes magician’s hands to act out his anecdotes.
He is an incurable prankster. There was the day in the ’50s, when a prospective new agent asked him to “do something funny.” Zero responded by heaving the man’s typewriter out of the window. For laughs at a recent luncheon, he asked the waiter for extra supplies of butter and proceeded to lard his expensive suit with it until he looked like a mammoth summer squash. On a TV talk show one time, he stuck the tiny mike in his nose and somehow came through loud and clown.
In 1955, before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had reason to believe he had once belonged to the Communist Party, Zero pleaded the 18th Amendment—which introduced prohibition to the U.S.—and deferentially thanked the congressmen for all the publicity they had given him.
A gifted artist whose paintings have been acquired by Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, among others, Mostel is engaged now with Mendoza in preparing another book for kids. It will simultaneously teach them the alphabet and the basics of painting. With a touch of nostalgia, Zero recalls that during the Depression, he worked for the WPA teaching painting to children in New York City schools.
In another outlet for his fascination with art and children, Zero will star this fall in a TV special for children about a hot dog vendor who accidentally gets locked up in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum overnight. The point of the show, he says, is to help youngsters react and relate to paintings and sculpture—which he does, for example, by joining in a marvelously animated version of Cézanne’s The Card Players.
Father of two sons himself—one an actor, one a painter—Zero came into the world, as he says, “unencumbered by great wealth.” With degrees in literature and art from New York colleges—though his studies have never included acting—he became a stand-up comic in Manhattan nightclubs before he was blacklisted in the McCarthy era. “Actually,” he says, “I was the happiest man on the blacklist that ever was. Instead of playing in a lot of mediocre movies, I had time to meditate and decide what I wanted to be.” All that he wants to be—author, actor, painter, gourmet, teacher and indefatigably gentle man—is still unfolding.