Once billed as “a man who made something out of nothing” by his press agent, Zero Mostel lived a career of intense highs and lows.
For three performances this week, “Zero Hour” presents an intimate portrait of this iconic and creative force.
According to playwright and actor Jim Brochu, the idea for the show about Mostel “has really been brewing in my head since the day I first met Zero when I was 14 years old. I already knew I was going to be an actor … and he was certainly a role model for me, on the stage anyway.”
That meeting was courtesy of Brochu’s friend David Burns, who was appearing with Mostel in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
“He was larger than life,” says Brochu. “Afterward, whenever I did a show, be it high school, college or my early off-Broadway career — there was something about Zero that inhabited me.”
So much so that when a 1970 Israeli revue served as Brochu’s off-Broadway debut (“New York took to it like tuberculosis. It was just horrible”), a reviewer noted that if Mostel’s life story ever were staged, Brochu should play the part.
Decades later, when Brochu was approaching 62, the age at which Mostel died, he decided it was time to do something.
That something involved sorting through the public Mostel — paternal and wry in “Fiddler on the Roof” and maniacally funny in films such as “The Producers” — and the private one.
“He could go from being the most charming, wonderful, welcoming man to the most horrible son of a bitch, berating actors and being just terrible,” Brochu recalls. “He yelled at me one day because I asked for an autographed picture. He told me I was not worthy.”
A fact not widely known about Mostel during his life is that, more than acting, he took great satisfaction and comfort in his work as a painter. An exhibit of Mostel’s canvases is on display at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco through Nov. 14.
The play, which is set in Mostel’s private art studio shortly before his death in 1977, presents the actor giving a fictional interview to a young, unseen reporter.
Brochu, as Mostel, reminisces about such milestones as the actor’s marriages and family, near loss of his leg in an accident and being blacklisted in Hollywood as a communist.
Despite sections of serious content, Brochu hopes that audiences leave with a smile. “Above it all, Zero was a riot. He was a very funny man who found his passion with a brush in his hand and left us a legacy of laughter.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Jewish Community Center, 3200 California St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $42 to $52
Contact: (415) 292-1233, www.jccsf.org/arts