Early life and career
He was born Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund to a Jewish family in Lemberg,
Galicia, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now Lviv, Ukraine.
His family emigrated to the United States in 1902.
Both of Muni's parents were actors with the Yiddish theatre. He
made his stage debut at age 12. During his time in Yiddish theater,
he was known as Moony Weisenfreund (Moonie is a common Yiddish name).
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 and manager
of The Little Red Theater in Northport, New York, during the Great
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.
Broadway and Hollywood
Muni was 29 when he began acting on Broadway in
1924. His first role, that of an elderly Jewish man in the play
We Americans, was written by playwright Sam Harris; it was also
the first time that he ever acted in English. He was signed by Fox
three years later, in 1929, and received an Oscar nomination for
his first film The Valiant. However, he was unhappy with the roles
and decided to return to Broadway.
In 1932, Paul Muni returned to Hollywood to star
in such harrowing pre-Code films as the original Scarface and I
Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. The acclaim that Muni received
as a result of this performance led Warner Brothers Studios to sign
a long-term contract with him. He received his second Oscar nomination
for Best Actor for his performance as James Allen, but lost to Charles
Laughton (The Private Life of Henry VIII). Muni eventually won a
long-overdue Oscar for his performance in the biographical drama
The Story of Louis Pasteur. In 1946 Muni appeared on Broadway in
A Flag is Born, refusing, along with co-stars Celia Adler and Marlon
Brando, to accept compensation above the Actor's Equity minimum
wage because of his commitment to the cause of creating a Jewish
State in Israel.
Muni was nominated for a total of five Academy Awards,
an impressive number by any standard but all the more remarkable
for Muni since he only appeared in twenty-five films throughout
his career. His other nominations may be seen in the table below.
Some sources list Muni as a nominee for 'Best Actor' for the film
Black Fury, but this is erroneous: Muni was actually a write-in
David Shipman calls Muni "an actor of great
integrity" and he prepared for his roles meticulously. Muni
was widely recognized as an eccentric if talented individual. He
would go into a rage whenever anyone wore red, but at the same time
he could often be found between sessions relaxing with his violin.
Over the years, he also became increasingly dependent on his wife,
Bella, who terrified directors by forcing them to redo scenes that
did not meet her satisfaction.
A dispute with Warner Bros. led to the termination
of Muni's contract, the result of which was stardom for Humphrey
Bogart. Bogart had been bombarding studio head Jack Warner with
telegrams, begging to be cast as Roy Earle in the film High Sierra,
a part that was supposed to have been played by Muni. But after
Muni's departure from the studio, Warner told Bogart that the part
was his (according to rumor, he made the offer on condition that
Bogart stop sending him telegrams). After reigning as one of the
biggest stars in Hollywood during the 1930s, Muni only made eight
films between 1941 and 1959 (including a guest appearance as himself
in the 1943 film Stage Door Canteen).
After several failed projects, Muni made a triumphant
return to Broadway, winning a Tony Award in 1956 for the role of
Henry Drummond in the play Inherit the Wind.
He retired from filmmaking in 1959, soon after receiving
his fifth Academy Award nomination for The Last Angry Man; however,
he made a final television appearance in the series Saints and Sinners
in 1962. Muni died in Montecito, California in 1967 at the age of
71. Muni died the same year as his Angel On My Shoulder co-star
He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6435
In the fourth-season M*A*S*H episode "Hawkeye",
Hawkeye Pierce describes his childhood in the 1930s and Muni's ubiquitous
film appearances thus: "You knew where you stood in those days.
Roosevelt was always president, Joe Louis was always the champ,
and Paul Muni played everybody."
Awards and nominations
1936 The Story of Louis Pasteur, Academy Award for
1937 The Life of Emile Zola, NYFCC Award for Best Actor
1956 Inherit the Wind, Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading
Actor in a Play
1960 The Last Angry Man
1938 Nominated The Life of Emile Zola
1936 Nominated Black Fury
1934 Nominated I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
1930 Nominated The Valiant