Paul Muni–a Hungarian-born actor who came to the U.S. as a young boy and got his start in New York’s Yiddish theatre scene–was one of Hollywood’s first stars, and was the first onscreen face of Al Capone.
Muni, whose parents named him Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund, was born in Galicia in 1895 and moved to the U.S. at the age of 7. He began acting at twelve in the Yiddish theatre, transitioning to English-language plays and, later, to Broadway. Soon the Fox Film Corporation contracted Muni to act in their movies. Though his first film, Valiant, was commercially unsuccessful, it earned him an Academy Award nomination–the first of six.
Today, Muni is best remembered for his title role in the original Scarface. His character was a caricature based on Al Capone–the film’s story mirrored the gangster’s, though according to the screenwriter, Capone kept tabs so it didn’t match too closely. (Capone is rumored to have liked the finished film so much that he owned a print of it, an expensive and rare acquisition in those days.)
Muni himself was an introvert. He hated being recognized in public, and spent most of his free time at home with his wife, Bella Finkel, another alumnus of the Yiddish theatre. While Scarface had one of the most notoriously violent endings in early Hollywood history–Muni’s character was gunned down in the street–Muni himself lived a quiet life, remaining married for 41 years, until his death.