Back in 1967, Lewis J. Stadlen's first professional acting job was in the national company of Fiddler on the Roof. "I played Mendel, the Rabbi's son," he says. "I was too young to grow my own beard, so I had to make one out of crepe." Fast-forward 41 years. Last month, while cavorting as Max Bialystock in the dandy Muny production of The Producers, Stadlen was offered the lead role in Fiddler, which concludes the Muny season beginning August 4. The moment The Producers closed, Stadlen rushed home to New York to begin learning the part — which he will be playing here for the first time — and to start growing his own beard.
Even as Stadlen immerses himself in Tevye, he also has been savoring his memories of the legendary Zero Mostel. "I saw Zero play Tevye three times," he says. "The first time was a few months after the show opened on Broadway in 1964. I thought his performance was the greatest thing I'd ever seen."
The second Mostel sighting occurred seven years later at the Westbury Music Fair, a theater-in-the-round on Long Island: "That was the first time Zero reprised the role after Broadway. I went to his first performance, and I was sitting in the first row. Having now done Fiddler for 660 performances myself, I wanted to see if Zero really was as great as I remembered. He was. He had what all genius actors have. You feel that they're improvising. You don't sense that you're watching a performance that's written down; it's just coming out of their brain.
"During Act One he looked over at me constantly. He must have realized that this young man in the front row was worshiping at his shrine. Then during the dream sequence he walked out of the scene and came over and sat in my lap for what must have been 30 seconds. It was one of the memorable evenings of my life. So when the show was over, I asked a mutual friend to introduce me. She brought me backstage and there was Zero. He was very friendly and down-to-earth." And, as ever, irrepressible.
"I said, 'I was the man whose lap you sat in.'
"And Zero looked at me and said, 'And do you want to know WHY I sat in your lap?"
"I said, 'Why?'
"He said, 'BECAUSE I WAS TIRED!'
"The third time I saw him was in 1976 in Los Angeles on the first stop of a national tour [that also brought Mostel to the Muny]. By now we were friendly acquaintances. He was a bad boy that night. He took milk and threw it into the orchestra pit. And I realized that I had a tolerance. Anything that Zero did was all right with me, because what he possessed was a form of comic nerve that the rest of us can only dream about. Patsy Kelly had it. Henrietta Jacobson, Bruce Adler's mother [and a star of the Yiddish theater] had it. Carol Burnett has it. She feeds off the audience, and then she extends the joke. What Zero had was the merging of superior intelligence and rage. He reminded me of the S.J. Perelman quote that if a man is over 40 and not pissed off, he's not paying attention. Zero was a combination of extraordinary tenderness and extraordinary anger."
Tevye marks Stadlen's third Muny role in two years. Last summer he portrayed Horace Vandergelder, the role created by David Burns, in Hello, Dolly! This season he bookends the season with The Producers and Fiddler, both roles made famous by Mostel. "Zero Mostel and David Burns," Stadlen muses with a touch of reverence in his voice, "those are the guys that I would sit there as a kid, and I'd say, 'Such joy they bring the world. I want to be that kind of funny.'"
That time has come.