The actor Joseph Buloff, who was born on this day in 1899, provided me with one of the most remarkable afternoons I have ever spent in the theatre. It was in 1979 at the Harold Clurman Theatre on 42nd Street in a revival of Arthur Miller's 1968 drama The Price. Buloff was playing the juicy role of Gregory Solomon, the old furniture dealer. I had never seen Buloff in a play, even though by that point, he had been on the New York stage for the better part of fifty years. Of course, many of those stages were on the Lower East Side, where as a mainstay of the Yiddish Theatre, Buloff appeared in over 225 Yiddish plays between 1926 and 1936, the year he made his Broadway debut. Amazing, right? And that number was entirely common in those days for someone like him, as well as fellow Jewish artists like Molly Picon and Fyvush Finkel. No wonder Buloff was astounding in The Price. He'd been training for it his entire life. It was on that occasion that he became one of very favorite actors. He died five years later at the age of eighty-five, mourned in the New York Times as someone who “could wrench more laughs out of a shrug or a pause than many other actors achieve with witty dialogue.”
Joseph Buloff (1899-1985).
But let's start at the beginning. Joseph Buloff was born in Lithuania in 1899. By his early twenties, he was already one of the leading players in the Vilnia Troupe, an internationally renowned theatrical company, and one of the most famous in the history of Yiddish theatre. He married Luba Kadison, another leading player, as well as the daughter of the founder of the company. In 1926, Buloff was summoned to America by Maurice Schwartz, to replace one of his biggest stars, Muni Weisenfreund (who would change his name when he left for Broadway becoming Paul Muni). Schwartz's prestigious Yiddish Art Theatre needed a replacement and word was coming in from Bucharest that there was a young actor turning in a brilliant performance in a play he had adapted and was starring in, "The Singer of His Sorrows."
The many faces of Joseph Buloff in his Yiddish Theatre days.
Success did not come quickly. It was only through hard work and determination that Buloff finally triumphed in the world of Second Avenue theatre. But like Muni, he too wanted a career that went beyond the limits of work that by its very nature would never play to the masses. Buloff perfected his English so that he wouldn't be stuck there forever, which was foresighted. By 1950, when the Yiddish Theatre was on its last legs—and before it ceased to exist altogether—Buloff was already an established actor on Broadway and in films.
When he made his debut on Broadway in 1936, it would be nice to report that he took the town by storm. However, the show closed in 16 performances, and it must have been disconcerting for Buloff to read the New York Times review, which read: “In the leading role is Joseph Buloff, a power down Second Avenue way, who is making his first appearance in an English language play. The question as to how he would normally make out in the Times Square drama must remain unanswered, for Don't Look Now gives him no chance for a respectable answer.”
He performed in six more Broadway shows over the next seven years, not getting the chance to create a role in a hit until 1943. But oh, what a hit! Buloff was the original Ali Hakim in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! Now the New York Times was ready to take notice, singling him out for special attention: “Joseph Buloff is marvelous as the peddler who ambles through the evening selling wares from French cards to Asiatic perfume—and avoiding matrimony.” Using his Yiddish accent was a deliberate choice, even though the character goes to great lengths to label himself “Persian.” The part was clearly written to be played by a Jewish actor to emphasize the character's outsider qualities—a stranger in a strange land. The fact that Ali Hakim weds a local girl at the end of the play, and is seemingly welcomed into the community of the new state, was no accident. With the show penned by Oscar Hammerstein, who was driven by a liberal conscious in all of his work, this was a slyly subtle political statement.
Buloff as Ali Hakim and Celeste Holm as Ado Annie in Oklahoma! (1943)
After Oklahoma! more stage work followed. Then the 1950s brought more regular work in films (Somebody Up There Likes Me, Silk Stockings), with Buloff also a conspicuous presence in the early days of New York's live television scene. He was on all the great anthology shows like Studio One and Goodyear Playhouse, and he had the recurring role of Pincus Pines on The Goldbergs, one of TV's biggest hits, that starred Gertrude Berg as Molly Goldberg.
Buloff with Jules Munshin and Peter Lorre in Silk Stockings (1957).
But Buloff's first love was the stage. By the 1970s, he eschewed film and television almost entirely. There was a sudden surge of nostalgia for Yiddish plays, and he did a few in New York like Hard to Be a Jew and The Fifth Season, which he also toured in countries around the world. By the time the 1979 production of The Price came along Buloff was eighty, and ready to show what he still had left to give. As Solomon, it felt as if we in the audience were the beneficiaries of everything he had learned in his sixty years on the stage. It was a performance for the ages. I can't imagine another actor in my lifetime doing what he did with that part. One of his co-stars in The Price, the late Fritz Weaver, told me of Buloff's process when I asked him about it: “He would sit on stage for an hour prior to show time behind the curtain and he would listen quietly to the audience coming in. He told me, 'They are expecting a great evening and I want to absorb their excitement.' You see, Buloff was communing with the voices beyond the curtain before they were even aware of him.”
Joseph Buloff (center) with Fritz Weaver and Mitch Ryan in The Price (1979).
Then, as if the Gods answered my prayers to see him again, one year later Buloff was back Off-Broadway. This time it was in a revival of an evening of Chekhov plays, A Chekhov Sketchbook, that he first performed in a 1962 production (that his wife Luba Kadison co-wrote). One play was added for the 1980 version, "In a Music Shop," adapted by Buloff himself. In it, he played a customer in a small music shop who couldn't get the shopkeeper to intuit what it was he was looking for. Imploring the uncomprehending and increasingly agitated shopkeeper, Buloff's attempts to convey the tune was hopeless, but his line readings were glorious. I will never forget his incessant demand; a cry for understanding almost through tears: “The music! The music!”
Thirty years prior to his final stage performance, Joseph Buloff gave one I wish I could have seen. It was in 1951 in Brooklyn ... long before I was born ... and the play was Death of a Salesman. Critic George Ross wrote: “What one feels most strikingly is that the Yiddish play is really the original and the Broadway production was merely Arthur Miller’s translation into English … Particularly in the character of Willy Loman, whom Buloff acts as well as translates brilliantly.”
Attention. Attention must be paid to such a man.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in both hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.