Nationality: American. Born: Muni Weisenfreund in Lemberg, Austria (now Lvov, Ukraine), 22 September 1895; emigrated with his family to the United States, 1902. Family: Married Bela Finkel, 1921. Career: 1908—first stage appearance in Two Corpses at Breakfast, Cleveland; beginning 1910—toured with Samuel Grossman's theater troupe; 1914–17—worked with burlesque company, Philadelphia; 1917–18—worked with Molly Picon's company, Boston; 1918—joined Yiddish Art Theatre in New York; became star of Yiddish theater in 1920s; 1926—Broadway debut in We Americans; 1929—first film appearance in The Valiant; 1932—contract with Warner Brothers; 1939—on Broadway in Key Largo; 1955—stage success in Inherit the Wind. Awards: Best Actor, Academy Award, and Best Actor, Venice Festival, for The Story of Louis Pasteur, 1936; Best Actor, New York Film Critics, for The Life of Emile Zola, 1937. Died: In Santa Barbara, California, 25 August 1967.
Films as Actor:
The Valiant (Howard) (as Dyke); Seven Faces (Viertel) (as Papa Chibou)
Scarface (Hawks) (as Tony Camonte); I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (LeRoy) (as James Allen)
The World Changes (LeRoy) (as Nordholm)
Hi, Nellie! (LeRoy)
Bordertown (Mayo) (as Johnny Rodriguez); Black Fury (Curtiz) (as Joe Radek); Dr. Socrates (Dieterle) (title role); The Story of Louis Pasteur (Dieterle) (title role)
The Good Earth (Franklin) (as Wang Lung); The Woman I Love (Litvak) (as Lieutenant Claude Maury); The Life of Emile Zola (Dieterle) (title role)
Juarez (Dieterle) (as Benito Pablo Juarez); We Are Not Alone (Goulding) (as Dr. David Newcome)
Hudson's Bay (Pichel) (as Pierre Radisson)
The Commandos Strike at Dawn (Farrow) (as Eric Torensen)
Stage Door Canteen (Borzage) (as himself)
A Song to Remember (Charles Vidor) (as Joseph Elsner)
Counter-Attack (Zoltan Korda) (as Alexei Kulkov)
Angel on My Shoulder (Mayo) (as Eddie Kagle)
Imbarco a mezzanotte (Embarkation at Midnight; Stranger on the Prowl; Encounter) (Losey) (as The Man)
The Last Angry Man (Daniel Mann) (as Dr. Sam)
By MUNI: articles—
"Paul Muni Interviews Himself," in Motion Picture Magazine (New York), December 1933.
"Hollywood Is the World's Melting Pot," as told to Gladys Hall, in Movie Classic, November 1936.
On MUNI: books—
Lawrence, Jerome, Actor: The Life and Times of Paul Muni, New York, 1974.
Druxman, Michael B., Paul Muni—His Life and Films, New York, 1974
Parish, James Robert, The Tough Guys, New Rochelle, New York, 1976.
Wallis, Hal, and Charles Higham, Starmaker, New York, 1980.
On MUNI: articles—
Cooley, Donald G., "They Tried to Make a Chaney Out of Muni," in Movie Classic, April 1935.
Best, Katherine, "Danger: Man at Work," in Stage, 1 April 1939.
Eustis, Morton, "Paul Muni," in Theatre Arts (New York), March 1940. Current Biography 1944, New York, 1944.
Jacobs, Jack, "Paul Muni," in Films in Review (New York), November 1961. Obituary, in New York Times, 26 August 1967.
Kazan, Elia, in Positif (Paris), October 1989.
Film Dope (Nottingham), March 1991.
Frank, Michael, "Paul Muni," in Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), April 1996.
Bagh, Peter von, in Filmihullu (Helsinki), no. 1, 1998.
On Muni: film—
Actor: The Paul Muni Story, 1978.
* * *
During the 1930s Paul Muni was one of the most respected names in acting. He was a perfectionist and extremely selective in the scripts he would choose to do. (Muni's contracts at both Fox and Warner Brothers gave him script approval.)
Once a script was agreed upon, Muni required months to research his character and prepare for his performance. If the character was a historical figure, he would read every available book on the subject. If the character required a certain dialect, he would rehearse into a recorder until he was satisfied with his accent. Once filming began he would remain in character between takes and even when he was off the studio lot. Muni would literally become the person in the script, which helped to build his reputation as one of the finest character actors of his time.
Muni began his acting career on the Yiddish stage in New York City. As a teenager he developed an affinity for makeup and often played characters much older than his real years. In 1926 he appeared on Broadway in We Americans which brought him to the attention of Hollywood. He started at Fox, and his first film, The Valiant, brought him his first of four Academy nominations. Unfortunately, the film bombed at the box office. His second film, Seven Faces, was also a financial failure. During the production of Scarface the project received a lot of criticism from the censors. Their main objection was the glorification of the gangster, so the studio added a subtitle to the film—"the shame of the nation." When the film was finally released, it was a huge box-office success, and Muni decided to remain in Hollywood to make more films. (His new contract with Warner Brothers also allowed him to act on the stage between pictures.)
Muni's next film was I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, based on the autobiography of Robert E. Burns. The film not only was a critical and financial success (both the film and Muni received Academy nominations), but also helped bring about public awareness of prison conditions in the south. Needless to say, the southern portion of the country did not take well to the film.
Muni's next milestone picture was The Story of Louis Pasteur. It took some good arguing on the part of Muni, the producer Henry Blanke, and the director William Dieterle to persuade Warner Brothers to back the film. The studio finally agreed, although they consented with a minimum budget and shooting schedule. The film was the sleeper of the year, and Muni won an Oscar for his role. After this film Muni appeared in several other historical films, such as The Life of Emile Zola and Juarez.
Although Muni did not make many pictures during his career (23 in all), he did appear in several significant films. Scarface was the first (and often considered to be the best) of the major gangster films of the 1930s. Other films, such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Black Fury dealt with social injustice, while historical films (although often containing more fiction than fact) were promoted as "important" and prestigious pictures. All of these films are based on strong leading characters, and Muni's ability to give substance to these parts helped to create several memorable roles for the screen.
—Linda J. Obalil
MUNI, PAUL (Muni Weisenfreund ; 1895–1967), U.S. actor. He started acting at the age of 12 in Chicago. Maurice *Schwartz recognized his talent and persuaded him to join his new Yiddish-speaking Jewish Art Theater in 1918. Muni got his first real opportunity in an English role on Broadway in We Americans in 1926 and his success was immediate. He had a rich voice, good command of mime and facial expression, and a capacity for varied characterization. He played his first gangster in Four Walls, went to Hollywood and was acknowledged a star for his work in The Valiants (1929). Scarface established his reputation and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang seemed to confirm him as a player of "tough" roles. However, he resisted typecasting and starred in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935), which won him a Motion Picture Academy award, The Good Earth (1936), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), and Juarez (1939). These roles expressed his true stature as an interpreter of heroism in spirit rather than in violence. Muni continued to appear in Broadway plays, including Elmer Rice's Counselor-at-Law (1931–33), Maxwell Anderson's Key Largo (1939), and in Inherit the Wind (1955). He also acted in the London run of Death of a Salesman and played his last film role in The Last Angry Man.