“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
Paul Muni is known for many powerful performances, especially in his appearance as the lead in Scarface (1932). Behind the scenes, Muni prepared intensely for his roles, immersing himself fully in the characters to which he was assigned.
Born Frederich Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund in Lemberg (present-day Ukraine) on September 22, 1895, Muni found himself as the child of Salli and Phillip Weisenfruend. Both of his parents were actors and passed on their love of performance to Muni, while also sharing their makeup skills with him. Yiddish was his first language.
By 1902, Muni’s family emigrated to the United States and settled in Chicago. There, he adopted the nickname “Moony” and started his career in the Yiddish theatre with his parents. In fact, one of his early roles at age 12 had him playing an 80-year-old man, thanks to his knack for being able to convincingly apply heavy stage makeup and execute a variety of roles. Soon, Muni was recognized by theatrical producer and director Maurice Schwartz, who signed him with his Yiddish Art Theater.
Throughout his teen years, he continued to develop his craft as an actor and pursued acting professionally. Along the way, he met a fellow Yiddish theatre actress named Bella Finkel and married her in 1921. The couple remained married until Muni’s passing.
In 1925, Muni was gaining attention on the New York stage. He began acting on Broadway in 1926 playing an elderly Jewish man in We Americans, which marked his first performance in English.
By 1929, Muni took on the stage name of Paul Muni along with being signed by 20th Century Fox. In the same year, he received an Oscar nomination for The Valiant (1929). His early films were considered financial failures, so he spent more time on Broadway and appeared in the hit show Counselor at Law.
He returned to Hollywood to star in Scarface (1932) and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), with him receiving another nomination for the latter. As a result of his success in these roles, he was signed to a contract with Warner Brothers. Muni was hailed as the screen’s best actor at the time.
Years later, Muni encouraged the studio to take on The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), initiating a phase of biographical roles for Muni. He won the Oscar for his role as Louis Pasteur, and went on to receive another nomination for The Life of Emile Zola (1937). He would also appear as a Chinese peasant in The Good Earth (1937) alongside Luise Rainer.
As the years went on, Muni became more disenchanted with life in Hollywood. He constantly valued his privacy to the point of eventually choosing not to renew his contract. Though he would still appear in occasional film roles, he worked to remove himself from the chaos of stardom.
Once Muni moved away from film roles, he chose to focus his time on his passion for the stage. In 1946, he starred on Broadway in A Flag is Born. He also performed abroad in London in a production of Death of a Salesman and later returned to Broadway once again. One of his biggest stage successes was Inherit the Wind, for which he won a Tony Award.
Muni’s final role was in The Last Angry Man (1959). He passed away from a heart illness on August 25, 1967, at age 71.
While there appear to be no tributes to Muni in his birthplace, there are a few locations in New York and California which were of relevance to him.
In 1940, he had a residence at 4922 Burbank Blvd. in Los Angeles, California. The home no longer stands.
In 1942, according to his draft card, he lived on Piping Rock Rd in Brookville, New York, when he was working for the Theater Guild.
By 1952, he resided at 5250 Louise Ave. in Encino, California. This is the property today:
At the time of his passing, he was residing in Santa Barbara.
While not many places exist today as tributes to Muni, viewing his filmography and deep immersion into the many roles he carried out is well worth enjoying.