Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Zero: A Memory

They're showing the original of Mel Brooks' "The Producers" on Turner Classic Movies tonight with Zero Mostel, an actor of comic genius. In 1943, we were in basic training together in South Carolina, and he gave me one of the most memorable evenings of my life.

The country boys in my company were excited by anything exotic and, given their lives before induction, it took little to tickle them. One day they were chortling over a guy in the next battalion named Zero.

He had been at City College a decade before me and in the 1940s was getting known in Manhattan night clubs for political satire that would later fail to amuse the House Un-American Activities Committee. The night I looked him up, Zero was on his way to becoming the pear-shaped presence that years later would charge around a Broadway stage and turn into a rhinoceros.

Sitting on his bunk, field jacket zipped to the throat, his big head seemed to be resting on a bulging bag of laundry. He was in his late twenties, but his eyes were a thousand years old. When I told him I was from the Bronx, he grabbed me as if I were a pastrami sandwich.

We went into town Saturday night to the Spartanburg USO, where local ladies entertained with doughnuts, coffee and Southern charm, and the troops entertained back however they could. When the hostesses heard Zero was a professional performer, they pushed him to the stage. I sat in the front row, happily awaiting my share of the attention he would be getting.

Zero slouched up to the microphone with a shy smile and a glint in his eye, gathered his bulk, fixed his face into a scowl and suddenly emitted the roar of a deep Southern demagogue. To this audience of dewy damsels and redneck recruits, he was offering his rendition of Senator Pellagra T. Polltax, a raging parody of the Mississippi racist, Theodore Bilbo.

As Zero flung his arms in all directions and turned up the angry rant about niggers and kikes, I slid down in my seat, looking for an exit.

By the time he finished, I was crouching near the floor. Through the startled silence, I heard the start of a low rumble, and I sprinted to the stage where Zero was beaming and bowing, grabbed his elbow and shoved him through a door toward the bus that would carry us, untarred and unfeathered, back to camp. On the ride Zero seemed relaxed, a small smile on his face. We never went to the USO again.


Ben said...

A song by my old friend, the late Adrienne Claiborne, and her ex-husband, the late Bob Claiborne.


Listen, Mr. Bilbo, listen to me
I’ll give you a lesson in history.
Listen and I’ll show you that the foreigners you hate
Are the very same people made America great.

In 1492 just to see what he could see,
Columbus, an Italian, looked out across the sea.
He said, Isabella babe, the world is round,
And the U.S.A.’s just a-waiting to be found.

In 1609 on a bright summer’s day,
The Half Moon set anchor in old New York Bay.
Henry Hudson, a Dutchman, took a good look around;
He said, “Boys, this is gonna be a helluva town.”

When the King of England started pushing Yankees around,
We had a little trouble up in Boston town.
There was a brave Negro, Crispus Attucks was the man;
Was the first one to fall when the fighting began.

Colin Kelly was a pilot flying down low;
Levine pushed the button that let the bomb go.
They sunk the Haruna to the bottom of the sea;
It was foreigners like those kept America free.

Now Bilbo, you’re taking one heck of a chance;
Your good friends, the Duponts, came over from France.
Another thing, I’m sure, will be news to you,
The first Mister Bilbo was a foreigner, too.

Well, you don’t like Negroes, you don’t like Jews;
If there is anyone you do like, it sure is news.
You don’t like Poles, Italians, Catholics, too;
Is it any wonder, Bilbo, that we don’t like you!

Words and Music by Bob and Adrienne Claiborne
(c) 1946 Bob Miller Publishing

Amicus said...

It's funny that you should run this. We were just talking about why Zero may not have gotten the filmed 'Fiddler' role.

Anonymous said...

Zero was a genius, but I think they actually made the right decision with the Fiddler movie, because the film was shot somewhat realistically, and on location. Zero was just too.. big and broad. (In all the best and wonderful ways, mind you..) It would have been a cartoon character plopped down amidst scores of hardworking Jewish peasants. Still, I wish I could have seen him do the role on stage..