BY CARY GINELL
Beginning this Saturday, the Elite Theatre Company’s South Stage will be presenting Zero Hour, a one-man play about legendary actor Zero Mostel. The project is near and dear to the heart of actor John Medeiros, who has tried to get it produced for almost 5 years. Medeiros has performed in two roles made famous by Mostel, Pseudolus (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and Tevye (Fiddler on the Roof). He won the Four Star Alliance Award in 2013 for Outstanding Lead Actor for his portrayal of Tevye.
Set in theater and film legend’s Zero Mostel’s painting studio in New York City, a naive reporter tries to interview the famously volatile and outspoken artist, prompting an explosion of memories, humor, wit, outrage, juicy backstage stories and Hollywood lore. In the 1950s Mostel became notorious for being placed on the infamous Hollywood blacklist. We visited with John recently, and talked about this important, mercurial artist he is portraying.
VCOS: What drew you to do this play?
JOHN: I’ve always been a fan of Zero Mostel. It’s really funny because I first encountered him when I was a kid. I was ten years old and was watching an episode of The Muppet Show that he was hosting. It had the distinction of being the only edition of that show that was broadcast posthumously. The episode ran after Zero’s death. And I thought, “Hey, this guy’s crazy, what a character!” So I started finding out more about him and found out that he was an idol of another hero of mine, John Belushi.
VCOS: What kind of characteristics do you and Mostel share?
JOHN: Well, apart from being overweight (laughs), we both do pantomime and comic facial expressions. Part of my theater training was studying mime and pantomime, plus, I’ve always liked silent movie stars like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Fatty Arbuckle. You could always see a lot of them in Zero Mostel.
VCOS: That’s interesting you would say that because Mostel was known mainly as a very vocal kind of person.
JOHN: That’s true, but a lot of his own ad-libs in plays weren’t so much vocal ones as they were pantomimic ones. If you go on YouTube and search for his name, you might find a couple of bits that he did on a 1961 TV special produced by David Susskind where he does some great, classic pantomimic bits. He was, of course, well known for his singing as well but he had a great physicality about him.
VCOS: The late Theodore Bikel called Mostel a “volcano.” There were other words that described him as narcissistic, explosive, frustrating, and a mass of contradictions. Does the play permit you to get to the root of who you think Zero Mostel was?
JOHN: I think so. The play was written by Jim Brochu, who knew Zero Mostel as a student in college. And he described that sort of contradiction. He met him backstage and saw him berating another actor for missing a cue, and then he turned around and changed completely, saying, “Ohh, hello! How are ya? Nice to see ya?” So he was guy who could turn on a dime. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. Zero Hour is driven by the fact that he is a mass of contradictions. There are some definite, huge mood changes, for whatever reason. A lot of it might come from his insecurities, which plays a big part in the story. He was rejected by his own family for marrying outside of his faith. But there was always a feeling of exclusion in his work, especially during the period when he was blacklisted.
VCOS: Did that make him a better actor?
JOHN: I think it did. I think everyone has felt that isolation in some way. It does get you to meditate upon your own loneliness and desire for acceptance. That kind of isolation lends itself to wanting to know what people are all about; what makes them tick, what makes them move. There’s one great quote in the play where he says, “I’ve had a thousand doors slammed in my face, but I stand on the other side of those closed doors, and I pound and I scratch and I scream, ‘Let me in! Mostel is here! How can you exclude the life of the party?’ And then the door opens and I don’t really want to go in.”
VCOS: Would you consider his life a tragedy?
JOHN: That’s a good question. I think I would consider his life both a triumph and a tragedy. He overcame so much and created so much and had a huge influence on a lot of comedians. I believe he influenced not just John Belushi, but Jackie Gleason, James Coco, Dom DeLuise, Chris Farley. When you think about it, he was the first bombastic, gonzo, out-of-control comedian. And I think that all those guys who came after him owe him a big debt.
VCOS: If you were the one conducting the interview with Zero, what would you ask him?
JOHN: Gosh. Let me think. I would ask him, “What would you really rather do?” And that would be in reference to his arts. He was also a painter. The acting groups he joined were kind of an accidental thing. He received money from the WPA to do art and also to teach and lecture on art. And he’d temper his lectures with jokes and funny bits, and because of that, he got set up to do benefits, and then stand-up in night clubs. And that’s how he became a performer. Part of the contradiction with him is that he considered himself a painter first, but he couldn’t live without being a performer. That was part of his psychological make up. So I would ask him if he would rather be a painter or a performer.
VCOS: I look at his two defining roles as Max Bialystock in The Producers and Tevye in Fiddler. Which one do you think he would pick as the one that was most important to him.
JOHN: Oh, without a doubt, he would pick Tevye. He didn’t like working on The Producers. In the play, he says he fears that that’s what he was going to be remembered for, even though he did all this other great stuff. But I would also add Pseudolus in Forum and John in the Eugene Ionesco play, Rhinoceros. He actually rejected the idea of using masks, as they did in England, when it premiered there. When it was brought to Broadway, he said, “Look, I don’t want to mess with the makeup. I’ve got some ideas.” And in the scene where he transforms himself into a rhinoceros, he did it completely without makeup. It was all his physicality, pantomime, and character driven. Not one splotch of makeup. And that was one of the things he was really, really known for. I keep finding films that Zero Mostel has done that had not been mentioned like the musical film Marco Polo with Desi Arnaz Jr. He played Kublai Khan. I just found that one yesterday.
VCOS: Check out a film he made with Harry Belafonte called The Angel Levine. That’s also a sleeper.
JOHN: Oh wow. I don’t know that one. I’ll have to look for it.
VCOS: Do you do anything special when you get into character as Zero?
JOHN: For me, it’s the pantomime. Sometimes I’ll just sit there and quietly do bits to get into character. Physically moving like him and doing his facial expressions. I’ve been told on many occasions that I look like him. One of the first things I did at the Elite Theatre Company about 16 years ago was a play called The Italian-American Reconciliation. I walked out during one of the scenes, and my character is doing a funny bit about getting into somebody’s backyard. It was mostly pantomime. And somebody in the audience, while I was doing it, yelled out, “Hey! It’s Zero Mostel!” I had to keep from cracking up at that one. But I did play Pseudolus and Tevye at the Ojai Art Center Theatre.
VCOS: How do one-man shows compare to being part of a larger cast for you?
JOHN: Well, it’s lonely (laughs). Actually, it’s a closer collaboration with the director. On the one hand, I miss the interplay with other actors and that dynamic, and there is more of an onus on you to tell the story. It feels a lot more like storytelling rather than being in a play. Because of the nature of the material, it feels like I’m doing a stand-up, where he’s telling stories to the imaginary interviewer. There is a part where he reenacts his old nightclub act from the 1940s.
VCOS: If you were to do another one-man show, are there any other subject who you’d like to cover?
JOHN: If I wanted to write one, I think I would want to do one like Anna Deavere Smith did, playing different characters, based upon racial issues. She’s half African American, half white. She interviewed all these people who were around during these particular racial crises and drew from the interviews and painted a picture based on her view of all these people. I wouldn’t mind trying something like that. But if I were to do a historical character, if I was the right body type, I would probably (laughs) want to do the life of Pete Townshend.
VCOS: I think you could do Jackie Gleason. There’s another really complex personality.
JOHN: Yeah. There’s a guy who was pretty creative and I’ve been compared to him too. At one point, I had an agent who wanted me to write a screenplay treatment for a Jackie Gleason show, but the project never came together.
VCOS: Can you describe Zero Mostel using one word?
JOHN: (Laughs loudly). I don’t think I could. I think I’d just describe him with a noise.
JOHN: Do you want to hear the noise?
JOHN: (makes roaring noise)
VOCS: Sounds kind of like a cross between Tarzan and a rhinoceros.
JOHN: Something like that. But if there was one word, I would say “genius.”
Zero Hour plays at the Elite Theatre Company from August 22 through September 6. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.