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September 22: Paul Muni

September 22, 2013

imagesAcademy Award-winning actor Paul Muni (Frederich Weisenfreund), who got his start in the Yiddish theater, was born in Lemberg, Galicia (Lviv in the Ukraine today) on this date in 1895. Adept at designing his own makeup, Muni as a 12-year-old played an 80-year-old character in his first role on stage. In his first English role, on Broadway in We Americans in 1926, he also played an elderly man. Three years later, he was signed by Fox, and starred in a series of fascinating, grim films including Scarface, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, The Valiant. He also portrayed Emile Zola in a 1937 bio-pic, and a Chinese peasant in The Good Earth. By the 1940s he was acting almost exclusively on the stage, including in A Flag is Born, Ben Hecht's Broadway play about the creation of a Jewish state in Israel, and as Willy Loman in the first British production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. In the mid 1950s, Muni had a huge stage success as the Clarence Darrow-like lawyer in Inherit the Wind, for which he won a Tony Award. He was a passionate actor who prepared extensively for his roles, and a publicity-shy man who, unlike many Hollywood stars, remained married to one woman, Bella Finkel, for forty-six years until he died at 71 in 1967. To see the trailer for his socially conscious film, I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang, look below.

"I don't want to be a star. If you have to label me anything, I'm an actor - I guess. A journeyman actor. I think 'star' is what you call actors who can't act." —Paul Muni