Paul Muni: America's First Actor

Paul Muni Comes to America, Lives & Breathes Acting, Is a Master of Stage Makeup, Loves His Wife, & Never Plays the Same Character Twice.
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Paul Muni.

Is the name familiar? 

Probably not.  Unless you’re a diehard Classic Hollywood fan with an interest in films that predate 1946.

But at his career peak in the 1930s, Paul Muni was a huge star.  For his stellar performances in such films as Scarface (1932), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), and The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Muni was revered as perhaps the best actor of the American stage and screen.

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Paul Muni: A Niche Interest Star

Despite his great popularity in the 1930s,  Paul Muni remains a niche star today for a few reasons.

"Garbo Man"

Muni was extremely private.  He didn’t share many details of his life with anyone [aff. link].  Indeed, Paul Muni was referred to as “Garbo Man” by the press—an obvious comparison to the intensely private Greta Garbo—for his reluctance to share any part of his life with the public.  His great privacy is a contributing factor to why Paul Muni is not one of the better remembered stars of early Hollywood.

Stage and Screen

Paul Muni lived and breathed acting.  It was his life.  Similar to stars like Henry Fonda, Muni divided his time between films in Hollywood and the Broadway stage.  As a result, he made fewer movies.  With fewer of his performances immortalized on film, we have less exposure to his work, certainly another reason why Paul Muni is more of a niche-interest star today.

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Muni in the classic I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932).

America's "First Actor"

Muni was an actor, not a personality.  In his prime, Muni garnered the respected title of America’s “First Actor.”  England had Olivier, but we had Paul Muni.  His talent and skill were greatly admired, and Muni prided himself on never playing the same role twice.

But the tradeoff was that the public never felt like they got to know Paul Muni onscreen.  And, as previously discussed, they certainly didn’t get to know who Paul Muni was off screen.  This lack of personal connection with filmgoers may also have something to do with Paul Muni not reaching the legendary status of other acting greats–like Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and Doris Day–who audiences felt they got to know through their screen performances.

As TCM celebrates his work this month, here are a few things about the intensely private and talented Paul Muni you didn’t know:

Paul Muni
A very young Paul Muni.

He’s from Austria-Hungary

That’s an oversimplification with the ever-changing map of Eastern Europe over the years, but Paul Muni was born Frederich Meshilem Meir Weisenfreund on September 22, 1895 in Lemberg, Galicia.  Today, that’s Lviv, Ukraine.  Culturally, Muni identified with his Jewish heritage more than anything else, and he spoke Yiddish fluently.  He did not learn English until his family moved to London, and then the United States, in 1902.  Of the Muni family, which included Paul, his parents, and two brothers, he was the only one who learned to speak “American” English without an accent.

Muni in his first film, The Valient (1929) with Marguerite Churchill.

Paul Muni Grew up in the Yiddish Theater

Muni’s parents were both actors.  They had been actors in “the old country,” and continued their profession when the family moved to New York, and then Chicago. Muni’s father wanted all of his sons to learn the violin and become musicians, a “respectable profession.” But Muni was stage struck, and by the age of 8, he was appearing in Yiddish Theater productions with his parents.  Although Paul Muni did become an accomplished violinist, from this tender age, all he wanted to do was act.

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Muni in The Life of Emile Zola (1937). Muni is only in his early 40s here, but you'd never guess, such was his mastery of character makeup.

Paul Muni Was a Stage Make-up Genius

Though he detested the comparison, Muni was often likened to Lon Chaney for his ability to completely transform himself behind the physical mask of a role.  Muni did this with his own stage makeup expertise.  In fact, Muni’s break through role on Broadway was playing an 80-year-old man in 1926’s We Americans

He was only 30 years old.

Muni’s skills as a makeup artist were so great, reviewers of the play actually believed his character was played by an old man.  One critic, so thoroughly convinced that Muni was in fact an elderly gentleman after seeing his performance, lamented:

“What an outrage that this old man should have spent a lifetime waiting to appear on Broadway!”

Muni wins his Oscar for The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936).

He Was an Oscar Winner

Paul Muni won the Best Actor Academy Award in 1937 for his portrayal of Louis Pasteur in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936).  He was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar a total of six times.

Muni as the title character in Scarface (1932).

Paul Muni Became the Roles He Played

Muni intensely researched each character he played.  He gained a reputation for being “the King” of biopics after his accurate portrayals of such famous men as Emile Zola and Louis Pasteur.  But this complete immersion into each of his characters came with a price: when Muni filmed 1932’s Scarface, playing a character based off of notorious gangster Al Capone, Muni’s loyal wife Bella shared that:

“I sensed a change in Muni which worried me. He seemed to have become different person.  His whole manner towards me was different.  At one time I thought: ‘Aha!  Hollywood has got him.  He is giving me the brushoff.  He is not my Muni anymore.’  Suddenly it dawned on me.  ‘Of course he isn’t my Muni.  He is bringing Scarface home with him!”

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The newlyweds, young Bella and Muni.

Bella often joked that being married to Paul Muni was like being married to several men.  When she sat down to write her memoirs–which unfortunately were never finished–Bella titled the transcript:

“The Men I Have Lived With!!  -Dedicated to Muni—who else?”

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Muni and Bella attend a red carpet event in LA, circa the late 1930s.

He Was Married Once

Muni and his wife Bella were actually set up by a matchmaker.  Most of their friends agreed that Muni and Bella were not a love match, but they were loyal and faithful to each other.  The strong foundation of their relationship was built on friendship, and Bella was one of the very few people Muni trusted.

Muni and Bella were married in 1921, before he became a respected actor or star.

And they stayed together until his death in 1967. 

Bella was a constant presence on her husband’s film and stage sets.  Without Bella there to guide his performance, Muni felt lost.  His best performances on the stage and screen were guided by Bella, and Muni always gave her credit where it was due.

Paul Muni was Punctual

Paul Muni was extremely punctual.

There were few things that annoyed him more than a person who didn’t respect time.

As Muni once said:

“If someone steals my money, that is one thing, but if they steal my time, they are stealing part of my life.”

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Muni with Bette Davis in Bordertown (1935).

He was a Fabulous Storyteller

Paul Muni knew how to tell a story through his characters on stage and screen.  But he was also a superb storyteller in real life.

According to Muni’s friend, author Max Wilk, it was not uncommon for Muni to have his friends:

“ …in stitches. That was a side of Muni that should be noted: he was a supreme raconteur [story teller] and enjoyed telling jokes. It gave him a chance to act out all his characters from the Yiddish theater: old Jewish women with limps, peddlers, doctors, bums, waiters.  When Muni told you a story, he became those people.”

More Paul Muni Next Week

That wraps up my introduction to Paul Muni.

Join me next week for all about Paul Muni and 1932’s Scarface.

Muni poses for George Hurrell, 1939.

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