Paul Muni was an American stage and film actor best known for playing the lead in ‘Scarface.’ Famous for his deep commitment to work, he was known to prepare intensely for each one of his roles which gave his performances the credibility unmatched by any other actor of his era. The son of actor parents, he was introduced to the show business at an early age. He started his acting career in the Yiddish theatre in Chicago with his parents, and enthralled the audiences with his first ever performance on stage—aged 12 at the time of his stage debut, Muni played the role of an 80-year-old man. Naturally talented in acting, he wanted to become a professional actor but this was unacceptable to his father who wanted his son to become a musician. However, Muni was adamant and his father reluctantly agreed to let him pursue his passion. Muni’s stage career was a resounding success and before long he became a much loved Broadway star. In the 1920s Hollywood was looking for theatrical talent and Muni got noticed for his extraordinary acting skills. He appeared in much acclaimed films like ‘Scarface’ and ‘The Story of Louis Pasteur.’ He was, however, dissatisfied with Hollywood despite his successful career and returned to his true passion, the stage.
Childhood & Early Life
Paul Muni was born as Frederich Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund on September 22, 1895, in Lemberg, Austro-Hungarian Empire. His parents, Salli and Phillip Weisenfreund, were actors. He had two brothers.
The family immigrated to America when the children were still young. His parents joined the Yiddish Theater group located in New York where Frederich would soon make his debut.
He made his stage debut as a 12 year old playing the character of an 80-year-old man. His performance caught the attention of Maurice Schwartz, who signed him up with his Yiddish Art Theater.
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Over the ensuing years, Paul Muni worked as an actor in travelling shows and gained popularity for his stage performances. As a young man he mastered the art of make-up which allowed him to change his appearance drastically in accordance with the role requirements.
In 1926, he approached the Broadway theatre for the role of an old Jewish man. The producer tried to dismiss him as the actor was a young man of 31. But he persevered, and with the help of his make-up skills made himself look old for the role. Thus he made his Broadway debut in the play ‘We Americans.’
Before long he became a successful stage actor, and when Hollywood was scouting for new talents, he quickly gained attention. He was signed by Fox in 1929. At this point, he adopted the stage name of Paul Muni.
His film career started with an excellent performance in ‘The Valiant’ which earned him an Academy Award nomination. However, the film did poorly at the box office. His second film too was a financial failure.
Disappointed by the failures, he returned to Broadway but came back to Hollywood in 1932 to play the role of Antonio "Tony" Camonte in ‘Scarface’, loosely based on the rise and fall of Al Capone. The film became an overnight sensation and catapulted Muni to stardom.
Impressed by his success, Warner Bros signed a long-term contract with him. Paul Muni was more interested in playing character roles rather than leading roles. He persuaded Warner Bros. to produce the historical biography ‘The Story of Louis Pasteur’ (1936). The movie was a critical as well as commercial hit.
His streak of success continued throughout the 1930s and he appeared in films such as ‘The Life of Emile Zola’ (1937), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award and played the lead role in ‘Juarez’ (1939).
Muni gained much respect for his commitment to acting. He prepared intensely for his roles, especially the biographical ones. He spent several days working on his dialogues, and was very particular about giving each performance his best. It was his sincerity and determination that made his performances so powerful and earned him the reputation of being an actor par excellence.
Despite his highly successful Hollywood career he was not satisfied with acting in films. So he decided not to renew his contract with the Warner Bros. and returned to the stage as he enjoyed theatre more. However, he continued making sporadic film appearances.
In the 1940s and 1950s, he performed in several popular plays like ‘A Flag is Born’ (1946), ‘Death of a Salesman’ (1949), and ‘Inherit the Wind’ (1955-56). Muni also had prominent roles in several TV anthology series. He was forced to retire from the profession he loved so much in 1962 as his health began to fail.
His portrayal of Antonio "Tony" Camonte in the gangster film ‘Scarface’ earned him a lot of praise. Even though Muni had initially refused to accept the role, the film helped him become one of the top most actors of his era.
He played the 19th century chemist Louis Pasteur in the biographical film ‘The Story of Louis Pasteur’ which was the first biographical role he played. He conducted in-depth research to portray Pasteur accurately and was also appreciated for his make-up skills.
Awards & Achievements
Paul Muni won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the 1936 film ‘The Story of Louis Pasteur’. He also won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor from the Venice Film Festival for the same film.
A renowned Broadway actor, he won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for his role in the production of ‘Inherit the Wind’ in 1955.
Personal Life & Legacy
Paul Muni was a very reserved and shy person in real life. In 1921, he married Bella Finkel, an actress. The couple remained married for 45 years until Muni’s death.
He suffered from various ailments during his later years including failing eyesight and rheumatic heart. He died of a heart ailment on August 25, 1967, aged 71.