Theodore Bikel, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ Star, Dies at 91
Broadway great Theodore Bikel dead.
Broadway icon THEODORE BIKEL has died. Theodore Bikel, the Tony- and Oscar-nominated actor and singer whose passions included folk music and political activism, died Tuesday morning of natural causes at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, said his agent Robert Malcolm.
Actor, singer and activist Theodore Bikel grew up in a second-floor apartment in Vienna where the family book collection included a 20-volume complete works of Yiddish storyteller Sholem Aleichem. The Oscar and Tony-nominated character actor and folk singer, who originated the role of Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music on the New York stage and starred in Fiddler on the Roof, passed away on Tuesday (21Jul15), aged 91. Bikel also appeared in director John Huston’s 1951 movie classic The African Queen, and his big screen credits included The Defiant Ones, My Fair Lady, The Pride and the Passion, and World War Two submarine thriller The Enemy Below, as well as The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming, and Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels. The Austrian-born Bikel was noted for the diversity of the roles he played, from a Scottish police officer to a Russian submarine skipper, Jewish refugee, Dutch sea captain and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Born in Vienna in 1924, Bikel fled the 1938 invasion of Austria by Nazi Germany, heading for the Middle East, where his acting career began a few years later at the Habima Theatre in Tel Aviv. He co-founded the Israeli Chamber Theatre before leaving in 1946 for London, where he studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and took early West End roles, including A Streetcar Named Desire with Vivian Leigh. He has left an indelible mark on generation of members past and generations of members to come,” Actors’ Equity Association, which Bikel led as president from 1973-1982, said in a statement.
He also appeared on numerous television shows, recorded books on tape, appeared in opera productions and issued more than 20 contemporary and folk music albums. He received an Oscar nomination for his 1958 portrayal of a Southern sheriff in “The Defiant Ones,” the acclaimed drama about two prison escapees, one black and one white. I wasn’t even born in America,’” Bikel said in an 2006 interview with the Montreal Gazette. “He said, ‘A good actor is a good actor is a good actor.’ I’ve never forgotten it.” In a film and TV career that spanned half a century, Bikel racked up more than 150 credits. But many viewers knew him best for his portrayal of Tevye in stage productions of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Although he did not appear in the original 1964 Broadway version or the 1971 film, he played Tevye more than 2,000 times on stage from 1967 onward. In “Murder She Wrote” alone, he played — in separate episodes — an Amsterdam police inspector, a Soviet trade representative and an Italian opera star.
Other shows in which he appeared included “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (as the Russian adopted father of a Klingon boy), “All in the Family,” “Columbo,” “Mission Impossible” and “Dynasty” (for a reoccurring role that required an upper-crust British accent). Bikel was also an accomplished folk musician, who co-founded the Newport Folk Festival with Pete Seeger and Los Angeles’ fabled folk venues the Unicorn and Cosmo Alley. Bikel didn’t mind that he had no familiar persona as an actor. “Some actors are what they are no matter what name you give them,” he told The Times in 1988. “Clark Gable looked, walked and talked exactly the same in every picture. Bikel, who jokingly referred to himself as “the poor man’s Peter Ustinov,” was 80 when he received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in 2005.
He was one of six leaders of the American Jewish Congress arrested while protesting in 1986 outside the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C. over that government’s restrictions on letting Jews leave the country. For the musical, Bikel based his performance as Tevye — who sings of traditions and famously rails at God at times — on his real-life grandfather. “He was observant, pious, irreverent, contradictory, irascible,” Bikel told the Boston Globe in 1994. “He didn’t just talk to God. At times, he went Tevye one step further and stopped talking to God.” From the truncated, twice-a-day version of the show he did in Las Vegas for several months, Bikel began touring with the full show, garnering standing ovations.
While living on a kibbutz there, he discovered his love for drama. “I often stood on heaps of manure, leaning on a pitchfork, singing Hebrew songs at the top of my voice _ songs that extolled the beauty of callused hands and the nobility of work, which I was not doing too well,” he wrote in his 1994 autobiography. You must let other people shine and have their moments.” About five years ago Bikel finally stopped doing the musical, but he was not through with Aleichem. He continued performing his one-man show, “Sholem Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears,” and he developed the documentary “Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem.” Drawn in part from Aleichem’s unfinished autobiography, the show aimed to present more of the writer’s sense of tragedy than is in the musical. “If the truth be known,” Bikel said of “Fiddler” in a 2008 interview, “it’s a charming show.
As a folk musician, Bikel made his concert debut in 1956 at the Carnegie Recital Hall, and went on to write, perform and translate lyrics to music for the next several decades. But it is what my wife calls ‘shtetl lite.’ “ Bikel was born May 2, 1924, in Vienna and named for Theodor Herzl, a founder of the modern Zionism movement that advocated for the establishment of a Jewish state in what was then Palestine. Bikel, who became an American citizen in 1961, said in his autobiography, “Theo: The Autobiography of Theodore Bikel,” that one of the key moral dilemmas of his life was whether to return to his homeland in 1948 when Israel declared its statehood. “A few of my contemporaries regarded what I did as a character flaw, if not a downright act of desertion,” he wrote. “In me, there remains a small, still voice that asks whether I can ever fully acquit myself in my own mind.” Bikel was among the guests on Sept. 13, 1993, when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat sealed their historic peace agreement with a handshake on the White House lawn. Bikel also served as a delegate to the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago, board member of Amnesty International, member of the National Council on the Arts, and president of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America.
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