Happy birthday, Zero Mostel!
TCM is marking the occasion with a double feature of Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), his screen debut, and The Front (1976), an underseen gem. Mostel was a Promethean and versatile talent “of enormous variety and nuance,” to quote A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to The Forum, one of his Broadway triumphs that earned him one of three Tony Awards. The phrase “larger than life” does not begin to do him justice.
But there is little of the outsized in his devastating performance in Martin Ritt’s The Front as Hecky Green, a glad-handing actor and entertainer whose livelihood is threatened by the Hollywood Blacklist in the 1950s. The film stars Woody Allen in his first dramatic role as Howard Prince, a cashier and debt-plagued bookie who agrees to help his screenwriter friend Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy), a blacklisted Communist sympathizer, by fronting for him. He signs his name to Miller’s scripts so his friend can continue working.
The Front was Mostel’s last film (he died in 1977 at the age of 62); it was Andrea Marcovicci’s first. She costars as the idealistic assistant to the producer of a live TV showcase and becomes involved with Howard. Marcovicci still acts, but is today hailed as one of the grandest divas of cabaret, a standards-bearer for the Great American Songbook. She spoke via Zoom with TCM about her memories of working with Mostel and shared stories that are at once sweet and “a bit vulgar.”
The Front is an auspicious beginning to your film career.
Andrea Marcovicci: I was 25 years old. I was cast in something, and to this day I feel really embarrassed to say I got the part and turned it down because I thought it wasn’t the way I wanted to be in a movie for the first time. I don’t think it ever hit the screen, but it was some heist thing in which I would have been just yelling, screaming and crying. I didn’t want to come into the movie world playing a victim.
Your breakthrough as an actress was as Dr. Betsy Chernak Taylor on the soap opera, Love Is a Many Splendored Thing and you had done several TV series and made-for-TV movies. How did you get The Front?
AM: I got a call to audition for Marion Daugherty (the legendary casting director who gave, among others, James Dean, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman their first opportunities onscreen). All I knew was that it was for a movie called The Front and it was with Woody Allen. But it was written by Walter Bernstein and was going to be directed by Marty Ritt. So I knew it wasn’t a Woody Allen picture, and—thank God—I wouldn’t have to be funny. In those days, I didn’t have funny chops. I was a tragedian all the way (laughs). At the time, I was playing Ophelia opposite Sam Waterston’s Hamlet in Central Park for producer Joseph Papp.
What is your most vivid memory about the audition?
AM: I was singing at [the New York nightclub] Reno Sweeney at the time. I sang ‘til midnight. Then I went to a recording studio and I sang until 3 a.m. I slept two or three hours and then I went to the audition. On no sleep. That’s the arrogance, stupidity, the silliness of youth. It’s just amazing what we’ll do. I read with Woody. He kept his back to me. But for some reason, either I was too tired to notice or I just thought, ‘Whatever,’ but it went well because I had a second meeting at the Sherry Netherlands Hotel. This is long before #MeToo. They said I got the part. I had a hat and I went down to that lovely square in front of the Sherry and I threw it in the air like Mary Tyler Moore.
How much did you know about the Blacklist?
AM: I knew nothing about the Blacklist. I did remember “Better Dead than Red” posters at school. I started my research and then I learned that people on the film had been blacklisted (including Ritt, Bernstein, Mostel and Herschel Bernardi). I was basically a complete neophyte in this world of men who had experienced it. I went to Marymount, a Catholic private school, for 12 years. I was kept unaware of many things. They didn’t teach the Holocaust. I learned about the Holocaust from my first boyfriend when I got out of school.
What do you remember about meeting Zero Mostel?
AM: I knew who Zero was, that’s for sure. In every way you can possibly imagine, Zero Mostel was larger than life. He was big and he was loud. He was also sweet, embracing, encouraging. My strongest memory of Zero is that when we were doing a scene together, he said, ‘You’re so beautiful; lift your chin up, catch the light.”
What was he like on the set?
AM: Zero wanted to make everybody laugh. Woody would never do that. Woody was quiet and introspective and just doing his job. He never tried to amuse anybody. Zero was ON at all times. He couldn’t help himself.
Do you have a favorite memory of working with him?
AM: One thing I remember is a little bit vulgar. A girlfriend come to visit me in my dressing room. They created dressing rooms without ceilings—they were more like cubicles—and Zero’s dressing room was right next to mine. My girlfriend and I were chatting quietly, and I heard from his dressing room, “Quiet, I’m farting.”
You were nominated for a Golden Globe.
AM: They wouldn’t fly me out.
Did you go on your own dime?
AM: You better believe I did. That’s Hollywood. I accepted an award that night for Susan Blakely (for Rich Man, Poor Man) so I got to go up onstage. The one thing they did send me on though—and the irony is amazing—they sent me to the Tehran Film Festival. Of all the film festivals to go to, where they have no freedom of speech.
Had you made somebody mad?
AM: No, no. (laughs) I said I would go if they threw in a trip to Paris.
Zero Mostel should have been nominated for an Oscar.
AM: It’s a stunning performance. It broke my heart. If there had been more support for the movie, he would have been nominated.
Zero is one of those show business legends I’ve never heard a bad word about.
AM: There’s a great story I know; he might have told it to me. He wasn’t getting along with his wife. They were supposed to be getting a divorce. He packed his bag and started to trudge out of the apartment. He got to the doorway with his suitcase and he said to his wife, ‘Don’t you even want to say goodbye?’ She turned around and he was stark naked except for a bowtie around his penis. And she laughed so hard that she took him back.
Do you have a favorite performance of his?
AM: The Producers (1967) can’t be beat. That scene with Gene Wilder: “I’m wet, I’m hysterical and I’m wet….” The Producers is my favorite.
I’ll give you the last word on what it’s like to work with Zero Mostel.
AM: It was fun. I like flamboyant people. Woody was very private with his humor. He would tell me little jokes in my ear, but he wouldn’t share them with anybody else. I like big personalities like Zero because that’s show business to me. What’s the point of being in the business if you’re going to be all withdrawn and tortured?
Before you go, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask the Queen of Cabaret if she were able to perform in front of an audience, what song she would share with her loyal subjects to give us hope and help us get through these challenging times?
AM: (Pause) I always think of (and starts to sing):
‘You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh
The fundamental things apply,
As time goes by.’