Paul Muni (September 22, 1895 – August 25, 1967) was an Austrian-Hungarian-born American stage and film actor. During the 1930s, he was considered the most prestigious actor at Warner Brothers studios, and one of the rare actors who was given the privilege of choosing which parts he wanted.
His acting quality, usually playing a powerful character, such as Scarface, was partly a result of his intense preparation for his parts, often immersing himself in study of the real character's traits and mannerisms. He was also highly skilled in using makeup techniques, a talent he learned from his parents, who were also actors, and from his early years on stage with the Yiddish Theater, in New York. At the age of 12, he played the stage role of an 80-year-old man; in one of his films, Seven Faces, he played seven different characters.
He has been nominated six times for an Oscar, winning once as Best Actor in The Story of Louis Pasteur.
Early life and career
He was born Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund to a Polish Jewish family in Lemberg, Galicia, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now Lviv, Ukraine (formerly Lwów, Poland). His family emigrated to the United States in 1902.
He began his acting career on the Yiddish stage in New York City, where his parents were actors with the Yiddish theatre. As a teenager, he developed an affinity for makeup and often played characters much older. Film historian Robert Osborne notes that his makeup skills were so creative, that for most of his roles, "he transformed his appearance so completely, he was dubbed 'the New Lon Chaney.' In his first stage role, at the age of 12, he played the role of an eighty-year-old man.
He was quickly recognized by Maurice Schwartz, who signed him up with his Yiddish Art Theater. Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni were cousins to Charles M. Fritz, who was a notable actor during the Great Depression. In 1921, he married Bella Finkel (February 8, 1898 - October 1, 1971), an actress in the Yiddish theatre. They remained married until Muni's death in 1967.
A 1925 New York Times article singled out his and Sam Kasten's performances at the People's Theater as among the highlights of that year's Yiddish theater season, describing them as second only to Ludwig Satz.
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