Theodore Bikel, Master of Versatility in Songs, Roles and Activism, Dies at 91
‘Fiddler on the Roof’ actor Theodore Bikel dies at 91.
In this Sept. 7, 2012 file photo, actor Theodore Bikel poses at the opening night performance of “November” at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Theodore Bikel, a Broadway and film actor known for his roles in Fiddler on the Roof and My Fair Lady, died of natural causes Tuesday morning at the age of 91.
The Austrian-born Bikel was known for the diversity of 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. Bikel, the Tony-nominated actor and singer whose passions included folk music and political activism, died Tuesday, July 21 2015 in a Los Angeles hospital. The actor was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal as sheriff Max Muller in 1958’s The Defiant Ones, and had a slew of television guesting roles on The Twilight Zone, Charlie’s Angels, Star Tre: The Next Generation, and Law & Order. A bulky, bearish man with an international background — he was born in Vienna and lived for years in England and British-administered Palestine — Mr. 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.
Bikel (pronounced bih-KEL) sang in 21 languages and was comfortable playing characters of almost any nationality, whether comic buffoons or scoundrels. He also earned two Tony nominations for The Rope Dancer and The Sound of Music. “He was a really lovely, entertaining, caring person,” Bikel’s rep, Robert Malcolm, tells EW. “He was a wonderful storyteller and a deeply caring man.” Bikel was passionate about the arts, having recorded 27 folk albums, and served as president of both the Associated Actors and Artistes of America and the Actor’s Equity Association. He won warm reviews and a loyal following, but it was often suggested that he was underappreciated — an “actor in search of an ID,” in the words of a 1988 Los Angeles Times headline. 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. Bikel was simply and enduringly Tevye, the stoic and irrepressible Jewish peasant who survives czarist Russia only to be brought low by his daughters.
Along the way, Bikel also released a string of albums, many of which featured him performing Jewish folks songs on guitar and a wide range of other instruments. Bikel took on the part in 1967 and never entirely stopped, appearing in more than 2,000 performances of “Fiddler.” He also portrayed both Tevye and Tevye’s creator, the author Sholem Aleichem, in a one-man show, “Sholem Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears,” with which he began touring in late 2008, when he was 84. He spent much of his youth in Palestine and was fiercely devoted to supporting Jewish causes, as well as the Democratic Party and human rights groups.
A vocal advocate for better working conditions and financial stability for actors, Bikel was the president of Actors’ Equity for nearly a decade, from 1973 to 1982. 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. Bikel played an Armenian merchant on “Ironside,” a Polish professor on “Charlie’s Angels,” an American professor on “The Paper Chase,” a Bulgarian villain on “Falcon Crest,” the Russian adoptive father of a Klingon on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and an Italian opera star on “Murder, She Wrote.” He also played a Greek peanut vendor, a blind Portuguese cobbler, a prison guard on Devil’s Island, a mad bomber, a South African Boer, a sinister Chinese gangster and Henry Kissinger. In movies he played several German officers, beginning with “The African Queen” (1951); a compassionate Southern sheriff in “The Defiant Ones” (1958), for which he received an Academy Award nomination; the king of Serbia in “Moulin Rouge” (1953); a Russian-speaking submarine commander in “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” (1966); and an effusive, overbearing Hungarian linguist in “My Fair Lady” (1964). “I’m sure I could have had a much bigger career had I followed the advice of agents and friends: stick to one aspect of what you do and stay in one place to do it — California, for example,” he wrote. While living on a kibbutz there, he discovered a love of 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.
Indeed, after nearly two years on Broadway opposite Mary Martin as the gruff patriarch of a family of Austrian singers (the role later played by Christopher Plummer in the movie version), Mr. 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. Karpathy thinks he can unmask impostors by listening to them speak — which he tries to do, unsuccessfully, with Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), a flower girl transformed into an aristocrat by the crafty Higgins. Bikel simply suffered the fate of the subsidiary character actor, as when The Times lumped him with several other actors as having been “excellent in small roles” in the 1958 drama “I Want to Live,” starring Susan Hayward. When he starred as a Holocaust survivor in “The Gathering” at the Jewish Repertory Theater in New York in 1999, Clive Barnes of The New York Post praised the “sheer magnificent conviction that Theodore Bikel brings to the grandfather who survived the Holocaust,” adding, “This is being, not acting.” For a while Mr.
Among his later recordings were “A Taste of Passover” (1998) and “A Taste of Hanukkah” (2000), both on Rounder, and “In My Own Lifetime: 12 Musical Theater Classics” (2006), on the Jewish Music Group label. He also denounced the militant Jewish Defense League in 1969, and, in 1967, publicly quit the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil-rights group, in protest over its accusations that the Israeli Army had committed atrocities against the Arabs. Bikel said in his autobiography that the family name had originally been Cohen, but that his great-grandfather changed it because there was another Cohen in the village where he lived in Bukovina, an area that has at different times been part of Romania and Russia. His great-grandfather, he wrote, arrived at the name Bikel by pointing his finger at random in an old prayer book and combining the first letters of the Hebrew words in the sentence where his finger landed, translated as “The children of Israel are holy to God.” The family later moved to Austria. He apprenticed at the Habimah theater in Tel Aviv in 1943, and in his first appearance on a professional stage he played the constable in “Tevye, the Milkman,” speaking just 29 words.
There he starred in a number of small productions and, after graduating with honors in 1948, was discovered by Laurence Olivier, who cast him in a small role in the London production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” A few months later, Mr. Bikel, who had just three years earlier played the part of a hijacked passenger in the television film “Victory at Entebbe,” rose to the occasion, rallying his fellow hostages with songs.
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