February 01, 1988 12:00 PM

A few years before he died in 1977, Zero Mostel, the comic master of Broadway’s Fiddler on the Roof, gave his actor son some advice. “He told me very seriously,” Josh Mostel remembers, ” ‘Before you go onstage, suck on something red. If your tongue is too white, it’s unattractive.’ ” Though he has never heeded that warning (“It’s ridiculous!”), a pale tongue hasn’t stopped Josh, 41, from carving his own theatrical niche. These days he’s winning cheers as Norman Bulansky, a retarded doughnut store employee whose work goes to his waistline in the off-Broadway hit The Boys Next Door. The play, about four mentally handicapped men sharing an apartment, is full of humor tinged with pain. “All the actors are fine,” raved the New York Times, “but Mr. Mostel is exceptional.”

Like Norman, Josh approaches life with a gentleness his bulk belies. “Zero was wild, outrageous,” says Zero’s pal Jack Gilford. “Josh is serious.” Josh sees himself as a character actor, not a comic. Says his friend, musical arranger Danny Troob: “Josh’s work is just now being noticed.”

There’s a lot to notice. Last year alone, Mostel pranced hysterically through Woody Allen’s Radio Days as the fish-cleaning Uncle Abe, brought humor to heroism as the much-tested mayor of John Sayles’s Matewan and showed the strain of high finance in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.

He started acting as a child and also sang in the Metropolitan Opera House chorus—following a performing path often closed to his father at the time. In 1952, when Josh was 6, his father was blacklisted by Hollywood. “He wasn’t a Communist,” Josh says, “he also wasn’t an informer. For that, he didn’t work in film and TV through the ’50s.” Josh’s mother, Kate, a onetime Rockette who died in 1986, took jobs as a salesperson, while Zero occasionally sold a painting or landed a booking as a stand-up comic. Josh and his brother Toby, now 39, grew up poor. “But my father tended to be extravagant,” Josh says. “I always felt well off.”

In the Mostel household intellect and instinct often collided. Josh grew up learning to play chess competitively and “piano, violin and mandolin badly. It was a loud house,” Josh muses. “Not a wallflower in the bunch.”

After foundering with music composition at Brandeis University, Josh switched to the theater department, where, he says, “only a moron could fail.” Out of school, he worked in Boston and New York with Troob and Jane Cur-tin in an improv group, the Proposition. Later he did small but telling film roles in Jesus Christ Superstar, Sophie’s Choice and Compromising Positions.

At a New York party in 1979 Mostel met Wisconsin-reared Peggy Rajski, now 34, a film (Matewan) and video (Bruce Springsteen) producer. “He could dance, so he was in demand,” says Peggy. Four months later they were living together, and in 1983 they married. “She’s unbelievably organized,” praises Josh. “Peggy has an idea and puts it into action. I have an idea, then I have lunch.” They live in a Manhattan co-op, a few buildings down from Josh’s childhood home. They are not yet planning a family. “I have nine brothers and sisters,” Peggy explains. “I know the demands children place.”

Though Moonstruck director Norman Jewison has optioned The Boys Next Door for a movie, Josh understands there’s no guarantee he’ll carry his role to the screen. After all, he watched Hollywood snatch Fiddler from his father and give it to Topol. His size also keeps a lid on acting fantasies. “I’d love to do Cyrano de Bergerac,” he suggests, “but who’d pay to see it?” Then again—a long-nosed romantic who tips the scale at more than 200 lbs.—who wouldn’t pay?

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