I have done quite a few plays, and I wanted a challenge,” says Howard Leader.
The actor has gotten what he wanted. Tonight he stars in a one-man show based on the life of Zero Mostel, the gregarious but tormented star of such films as “The Producers” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” as well as the original Tevye in the Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
This new production of Jim Brochu’s award-winning 2006 stage play, “Zero Hour” opens tonight at Ojai Youth Entertainers Studio, directed by Mr. Leader’s frequent collaborator, Steve Grumette.
The twist about the very entertaining Mr. Mostel, who died in 1977 at age 62, was that he always wanted to be a painter, but it was acting that gave him a career. By the time he was off for the opening night of his final play, “The Merchant,” he was ruing leaving his studio and equating the doors of the theater to a prison. He would not finish the run of “The Merchant,” dying of an aneurysm shortly into the run.
Mr. Brochu’s one-man show brings Mr. Mostel to life, showing him being interviewed by an unseen journalist in his art studio. It uses this frame as a way to have Mr. Mostel talk about his life — his sideways fall into acting, surviving the Black List in 1950s America, and his fame in the above-mentioned films. But it also brings out the actor’s tormented side.
“I don’t think he was a happy man,” says Mr. Grumette. “As a performer he made more money than as an artist. He loved the attention, but he hated the process.”
Mr. Mostel painted impressionistic art, but he would correct people and tell them, “Wrong, I am a Mostelinistic artist!” according to Mr. Grumette.
Mr. Leader and Mr. Mostel grew up in the same area of Brooklyn, just at different times. They both come from Russian immigrant backgrounds, giving them an affinity, Mr. Leader says. “He was his own man, and I relate to that.”
Having a wealth of Mr. Mostel’s life on film and video available is a bit of a hindrance, says Mr. Leader, who avoids watching anything Mr. Mostel was in while he created the character. “I don’t want to be compared to him or any actor who has played him,” he says. That includes watching Mr. Brochu’s original one-man show. The one time that Mr. Leader and Mr. Grumette watched a clip of the 2006 production was to take notes on the set design, but even that was too much and Mr. Leader found himself copying a hand gesture in rehearsal. It was removed the next day.
In interview, Mr. Leader and Mr. Grumette make a prickly pair. They go back years, and they’ve butted heads repeatedly. They put each other down humorously.
“Here’s the truth,” says Mr. Leader. “We really don’t get along. We’re both hardheaded. I’ve walked off the set in previous projects. But what he does works.”
“It’s like what Mr. Mostel says in the play, talking about director Jerome Robbins,” says Mr. Grumette. “There was blood on the floor, but the play was a hit.”
When: 8 p.m. Fri. and Sat.; 2 p.m. Sun. Through March 24.
Where: Ojai Youth Entertainers Studio, 316 E. Matilija St., Ojai
Information: www.ojaiyes.org or 646-4300