Actor-Writer Jim Brochu: The Greatest American Zero

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Jim Brochu as Zero Mostel in Zero Hour. Photo: Stan Barouh.

Stop what you’re doing and watch this clip, from 1962, of Zero Mostel. Really, just stop what you’re doing. Put down your knitting, the book and the broom. Come watch this actor play:

Glad you cooperated. Now watch this clip of actor-writer Jim Brochu, who plays the monumentally complex, irascible genius that was Mostel in his play Zero Hour:

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Ask — as might be your wont at this point — who Brochu is, and the best answer this writer can offer is the one that Brochu gave to me when I posed a very similar question:

Jim Brochu is the illegitimate offspring of Orson Welles and Pinky Lee with a dash of Dr. Ruth thrown in. He is a creature of the night that is most alive in a theater and even knows who Clyde Fitch was. He grew up in NYC during a time when anyone could go backstage at a Broadway theater and say hello to their favorite star…

While the idea of film’s greatest auteur and a timeless burlesque comic having a big ol’ ovulating gay fling is kind of hilarious, Brochu’s official bio clarifies things — for he has enjoyed one heck of a long, varied and blessed career, mostly in the theater. One of the highlights of which was in 2010, when Zero Hour opened Off-Broadway and he won a Drama Desk Award for solo performance, beating out Carrie Fisher, Anna Deavere Smith, Judith Ivey, Colman Domingo and the late Theodore Bikel. Later, Brochu won Helen Hayes, Carbonell and Ovation awards for his performance as well.

And now, Zero Hour is back for an Off-Broadway run at the Theatre at St. Clements (423 W. 46th St.) through July 9, under the auspices of NYC’s indispensable Peccadillo Theatre Company, in association with Kurt Petersen and Edmund Gaynes.

And what better time for Brochu — and audiences — to revisit the life and times of Mostel? Here, after all, was a man who came back from the terror of the right-wing 1950s blacklist to win three Tonys: in 1961, for Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinosceros; in 1963, for originating the role of Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; in 1965, for originating the role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. All of which came before his role as Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks’ film The Producers, which made him immortal.

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Three-time Oscar nominee Piper Laurie once again directs Zero Hour, which takes place at Mostel’s painting studio in Manhattan, where a naive reporter attempts to interview the famously volatile actor, prompting explosions of memory, humor, outrage and backstage gossip.  It is July 1977 and the actor is giving his final interview before a pre-Broadway tryout of The Merchant of Venice in Philadelphia. He only played one performance as Shylock before his sudden death at age 62. The play also recalls the actor’s youth on NYC’s Lower East Side — the son of Orthodox Jewish immigrant parents.

The press materials for this run of the play contain a terrific quote from Brochu:

Zero had a great influence on my life and I was fortunate to get to know him when I was first starting out. His life was filled with great laughter, great drama and great life lessons for all of us. Few people in show business had more obstacles to overcome than Zero Mostel. He was disowned by his own parents, by his profession and even by his own country.

With his partner, highly lauded composer Steve Schalchlin, Brochu also penned the award-winning Off-Broadway musicals The Last Session and The Big Voice: God or Merman?

For tickets to Zero Hour, click here.

And now, 5 questions Jim Brochu has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

Barbra Streisand saw the show a few years ago and asked to meet me. It was surrealistic about how she went on and on about how much she loved my performance. Then she asked, “Who wrote the play?,” and I told her I had also written it. Well, she really went nuts with her praise and my eyes were rolling around in my head not believing that my “pal” Barbra was telling me she was my fan. Then she asked, “Do you do it on purpose or does it just happen?” “What?,” I asked. “The fact that you can have the audience gasping in horror one minute and then have then hysterical laughing the next.” I told her that was Zero’s life. Laughter and tears.

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What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

A lady in Palm Springs asked me if I thought Zero was Jewish.

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

Zero’s son, Josh, read the script and asked me if I had spelled Plautus wrong on purpose.

This revival of Zero Hour coincide with the 40th anniversary of Mostel’s death. As with so many figures whose stage work was legend and film work scarce, Mostel’s memory is either fading or nonexistent in the minds of new generations of theatergoers. Is that a challenge to playing him — or to reviving this play?

It’s no different than playing Hamlet or Cyrano. Zero is a great character to play, whether people know he was real or not. A few years ago, we were in a car in Washington, DC, with a young man who was assigned to drive you to the theater every night. He had never heard of Lucille Ball! Imagine! To me, that’s blasphemy. My play is set in a volatile political climate — everything old is new again. Yes, Zero died 40 years ago this year, and the young generations probably have no idea who he is except when they stumble over him in The Producers on some cable network. He predicted that would be his legacy and it made him angry. But if great characters are about ones who overcome obstacles, then Zero’s life qualifies him to be one of the great characters of all time.

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Watching online clips of Mostel, one of his most striking features is his communication of subtext. You knew him at the start of your career. If you could speak to him now, what about acting would you talk about first?

Zero terrified me. I saw him be very mean to other actors and in the next moment be absolutely sweet during the Forum days. I also saw him in Ulysses in Nighttown in 1970, the revival at [Broadway’s] Winter Garden. About filling subtext: what always stood out with Zero is his dedication to the script while seeming to be totally improvisational. There was a sense of danger in watching Zero; you never knew what he was going to do next. In her book, Respect for Acting, Uta Hagen writes, “Never be on a stage with children, animals or Zero Mostel.” Oh, and he wouldn’t talk about acting. It was unimportant to him. But we could get into a two hour discussion about Rembrandt’s “Descent from the Cross.”

Name three roles that Mostel could have played if had he lived longer, and why they would have been the right roles for him.

1) Javier in Les Misérables because of his intensity.
2) Man in Chair in The Drowsy Chaperone so he wouldn’t have to move.
3) Edna Turnblad in Hairspray because he would look good in a house dress.