Illustration by Art Seiden

Jewish Heroes and Heroines in America

World War II to the Present:


Paul Muni: Yiddish Theater and Movie Star

by Seymour "Sy" Brody

Despite his successes in the American theater and movies, Academy Award winner Paul Muni's first love was the Yiddish theater. Muni's acting career started in the Yiddish theater when he as a young boy.

Muni was originally named Mehilem Weisenfeund and was born in Lemberg, Austria, now Lvov, U.S.S.R., on September 22, 1895. He was the son of Salche and Nacham Favel Weisenfreund, itinerant Yiddish entertainers. The Weisenfeunds traveled throughout Austria-Hungary to Yiddish-speaking villages and performed brief plays, songs, and dances.

After a brief stay in London, where their little variety theater failed, they arrived in America in 1901. At the age of 13, Muni was a last- minute replacement for the old man in the play Two Corpses at Breakfast. This was the beginning of his acting career. For a long time, he portrayed old men on the Yiddish stage.

In 1919, Muni Joined the Yiddish Art Theater at the invitation of Maurice Schwartz, the founder. He performed in many plays. While rehearsing in Sholom Aleichem's Schver Tzu Sein A Yid, he met actress Bella Finkel, niece of Yiddish actor Boris Tomashefsky. They were married on May 8, 1921. Two years later, Muni became an American citizen.

Muni's American theater acting career began in 1926 when he replaced Edward G. Robinson in We Americans. In 1929, he used the name Paul Muni when he starred in an early talking movie called The Vallant.

For a while, Muni alternated between making movies and appearing in Broadway plays. The movie Scarface made him a major Hollywood star in 1932. Prior to making Scarface, Muni achieved great success in the lead role in Counselor-At-Law by Elmer Rice. He appeared in this play many times throughout his acting career.

Warner Brothers signed Muni for three social-consciousness movies. His first was I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, which won him another Academy Award nomination. Muni finished his contract with Warner Brothers. His new contract gave him authority over final approval of his films. This was unheard of in Hollywood. In 1935, he starred in movies that launched his career as one of America's greatest actors. He began playing character roles. The title role in The Story of Louis Pasteur won him the Academy Award. He portrayed a Chinese peasant in The Good Earth. Time Magazine proclaimed him the "first actor of the screen" and the New York Film Critics gave him the best actor award for the title role in The Life of Emile Zola in 1937. His ability to use disguises for the many characters portrayed gave him the flexibility to play a variety of roles.

Muni ended his relationship with Warner Brothers in 1940. He only made eight more films after this breakup.

Muni was always concerned about the European Jews. He strongly felt that Israel was the haven for those Jews needing a place to live. He starred in Ben Hecht's pageant A Flag is Born, which helped rally support for Israel. Muni continued to star in Broadway plays and in movies. His failing health and vision ended his activities. Muni performed in 23 movies and 12 Broadway plays. Ile had more than 300 roles in the Yiddish theater. He died in California on August 25, 1967.

This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes and Heroines of America, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.

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