He was nominated for an Academy Award for his film debut. Such high-powered talent is rare, and should be celebrated. Paul Muni, the actor best known for an important array of bio-pics, was multi-faceted, and extremely gifted.
He was born Muni Weisenfreund, on September 22, 1895, in Lemberg, Austria. He was the son of an itinerant actor and actress; he appeared on the stage with his parents from early childhood. When he was seven years old, his family emigrated to the United States, settled on New York’s Lower East Side, and continued its theatrical activity on the Yiddish stage.
In 1918, Muni joined the then-thriving Yiddish Art Theater company, with which he toured in the United States and in Europe. On May 8, 1921, he married Bella Finkel in New York City. The Munis, who had no children, were one of Hollywood’s most happily married couples. He was 31 when he made his English language stage debut in the 1926 Broadway production of “We Americans.” By 1929, he was sufficiently established on Broadway to be signed by Fox.
He was nominated for his very first role, in The Valiant. However, unhappy with his second film, Seven Faces (1929; in which he played seven different roles), Muni returned to Broadway, where he scored a notable success in the 1931 play, “Counsellor-at-Law.” Returning to the screen in 1932, he reaped two consecutive personal triumphs: his performance as a volatile mob boss in Scarface led to a long-term contract with Warner Bros.; his performance in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang earned him his second Oscar nomination as Best Actor. Though he lost again, he would eventually win.
Muni rapidly established himself as Warners’ most distinguished thespian. An extremely conscientious actor, he insisted on having his choice of roles, and took meticulous care with the makeup required for authenticity of his portrayals. He soon scored his biggest successes to date with a string of biography films: He won the Academy Award for The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), won the New York Film Critics Award and was Oscar-nominated for The Life of Emile Zola (1937), and won high praise for Juarez (1939). By the end of 1939, Muni was earning $11,500 weekly.
On July 18, 1940, with three years left on his contract, Paul Muni and Warners parted company, because of conflicts over his choice of roles and his desire to change story material, especially on his upcoming film High Sierra (which the studio reassigned to Humphrey Bogart). He subsequently alternated between stage and screen, and film roles became few and far between, but each was still anticipated by critics and fans. Times did change, however, to the point where the mutual admiration society with the public waned a bit.
On June 8, 1949, an FBI informant, in a secret report revealed at a spy trial, names as Communists or sympathizers John Garfield, Sylvia Sidney, Fredric March, Edward G. Robinson, Melvyn Douglas, and Paul Muni. It seemed as if such a revelation worked to do one of two things: kill a career or encourage endurance. For Muni, the latter was the positive choice. He scored a hit on Broadway in 1955 in “Inherit the Wind,” and played his last role in the film The Last Angry Man (1959, Academy Award nomination). It was a grand finale to an important career.
His final years were marked by poor health, complicated by advancing blindness. He was virtually inactive at the time of his death, on August 25, 1967, of a heart ailment, in his home in Santa Barbara, California. He was 71 years of age; his wife of 46 years, Bella, survived him; Mrs. Muni died in 1971.
Paul Muni’s important contributions to the motion picture industry were recognized with a star along Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, at 6433 Hollywood Boulevard. His was a most worthwhile career, and a marvelous life to learn from: his example of hard work, perseverance, and making good use of talent, can teach new generations numerous lessons. His was a life well spent, and a career worthy of remembrance.