Paul Muni’s career is an interesting window into public perception. Speaking personally, I always most associated him with those 1932 classics Scarface and I Am a Fugitive from a Gang. Thus I always hung on to this impression that he was more like those gangster actors, like George Raft, Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. I even clung to that idea even after I’d seen him in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), The Good Earth and The Life of Emile Zola (both 1937). In the latter cases I guess I just assumed he was stretching beyond his natural place as a tough guy leading man. Doing a good job, but stretching. The reality was quite the opposite, Muni was well known and respected for his versatility and facility with make-ups, voices and costumes, and often compared to Lon Chaney. It’s just that his performance was SO good in Scarface, one just assumed that gangster persona was his “thing”, his default. When in reality, if anything, Scarface was the stretch. In real life, Muni was shy, bookish and serious.
Muni (1895-1967) was first and foremost a creature of the stage. He was born Frederich Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund, in Lemberg, Galicia, then a part of Austria-Hungary, now a part of Ukraine. His parents were both actors; his first language was Yiddish. From Lemberg, the family moved westward in hops: from Lemberg to London to New York (1900) to Cleveland (1905) to Chicago (1908). He started out in Yiddish theatre and vaudeville at age 12, first with his parents, then on his own. By the teens he had made his way to New York, where he continued to act in Yiddish theatre and vaudeville. It wasn’t until his Broadway debut in We Americans (1926) that he ever acted in English.
Hollywood called soon after. He chose the screen name Muni, based on his childhood nickname (Mooney). He was nominated for an Oscar for his very first screen performance in The Valiant (1929). Next came Seven Faces, that same year, where he indeed played seven different roles. Then some more Broadway shots, until the monster success of Scarface. But Hollywood didn’t suit him. At the end of the ’30s he opted not to renew his long-term contract. He returned to Broadway, in the original production of Maxwell Anderson’s Key Largo (1939-40, later made into a film starring Bogart). Other notable productions included a 1942 revival of Counselor-at Law (which he had also played in a decade earlier); a pro-Israel (and PRE-Israel) production co-starring a young Marlon Brando called A Flag is Born (1946); and the original production of Inherit the Wind (1955).
He also continued to take the occasional film and TV role. Over the course of his long career, Muni made fewer than two dozen movies. The only one of his other film roles (beyond those mentioned) I have seen to date is Juarez (1939) in which he portrayed the titular Mexican ruler. His last movie was his Oscar nominated performance in The Last Angry Man (1959). He retired from acting in 1962, and passed away five years later.
To find out more about vaudeville and stars like Paul Muni consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous