Molly Picon (Yiddish: מאָלי פּיקאָן; February 28, 1898 – April 5, 1992) was an American actress of stage, screen and television, as well as a lyricist and dramatic storyteller.
She was first and foremost a star in Yiddish theatre and film, but in time she turned to English-language productions.
Picon was born as Małka Opiekun in New York City, the daughter of Polish Jewish emigrants: Clara (née Ostrow), a wardrobe mistress, and Louis Opiekun, a shirtmaker. Opiekun is a Polish language name meaning, "guardian" or "caretaker". Her surname was later changed to Picon. Her career began at the age of six in the Yiddish Theatre. In 1912, she debuted at the Arch Street Theatre in New York and became a star of the Yiddish Theater District, performing in plays in the District for seven years. Picon was so popular in the 1920s that many shows had her adopted name, Molly, in their title. In 1931, she opened the Molly Picon Theatre. She appeared in many films, starting with silent movies. Her earliest film still existing is the 1923 East and West, which deals with the clash of new and old Jewish cultures. She played an American-born daughter who travels with her father back to Galicia in East Central Europe. Her real-life husband Jacob Kalich played one of her relatives.
Picon's most famous film, Yidl Mitn Fidl (1936), was made on location in Poland, and has her wearing male clothing through most of the film. In the film, a girl and her father are forced by poverty to set out on the road as traveling musicians. For her safety, she disguises herself as a boy, which becomes inconvenient when she falls in love with one of the other musicians in the troupe. Later Mamele was made in Poland.
Picon made her English language debut on stage in 1940. On Broadway, she starred in the Jerry Herman musical Milk and Honey in 1961. In 1966 she quit the disastrous Chu Chem during previews in Philadelphia; the show closed before reaching Broadway.
She was featured in a bit part in the 1948 film The Naked City as the woman running a newsstand and soda fountain towards the climax of the film. Her first major English speaking role in the movies was the film version of Come Blow Your Horn (1963), with Frank Sinatra. She portrayed Yente, the Matchmaker in the film adaptation of the Broadway hit Fiddler on the Roof in 1971.
On an ironic note, in 1959 she was featured on an episode of the NBC TV series, Startime. This particular episode was an adaptation of Samuel Raphaelson's play, "The Jazz Singer" starring Jerry Lewis, in which she played Lewis's mother, Sarah Rabinowitz. In one scene, Lewis says the line, referring to Picon as his mother, "She's still in our presence ladies and gentlemen, the Matchmaker".
In the 1970s, she was featured as a madam named Mrs. Cherry in For Pete's Sake, starring Barbra Streisand. She played the role of Molly Gordon in an episode of CBS's Gomer Pyle, USMC and had a recurring role as Mrs. Bronson in the NBC police comedy, Car 54, Where Are You?. She later played a role on television on the soap opera Somerset and appeared in a couple of episodes of The Facts of Life as Natalie's grandmother, and her final roles were cameo appearances in the comedies Cannonball Run & Cannonball Run II as Roger Moore's mother.
Picon wrote a biography about her family called So Laugh a Little in 1962. Later, in 1980, she published an autobiography, Molly.
An entire room was filled with her memorabilia at the Second Avenue Deli in New York (now closed at that location).
She was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981.
Costumes she wore in various theater productions are displayed at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.
In 2007, she was featured in the film Making Trouble, a tribute to female Jewish comedians, produced by the Jewish Women’s Archive.
Picon died on April 6, 1992, aged 94, from Alzheimer's disease in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Yankel Kalich, her husband from 1919 until his death in 1975, died from cancer. They had no children. She and her husband are interred in the Yiddish Theater section of the Mount Hebron Cemetery in New York City.
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