Theodore Bikel, actor, singer and activist, 91


Theodore Bikel, folk singer, actor, liberal activist, Zionist and multilinguist, died of natural causes July 21 at the UCLA Medical Center. He was 91.

Nicknamed Theo, Bikel was born in 1924 in Vienna and, as a 14-year-old in 1938, watched as Nazi troops march into his hometown upon Germany’s annexation of Austria. Soon afterward, the family moved to Palestine, where young Bikel spent the next few years working on a kibbutz. He began acting as a teenager, moving to London in 1945 to study dramatic art, and to the United States in 1954.

[Bikel on what wisdom he would pass on to the next generation]

Considered one of the most versatile actors of his generation, Bikel originated the role of Capt. Georg von Trapp in the original Broadway production of “The Sound of Music.” But the performer may be best remembered as the definitive Tevye the Milkman, polishing the role during 2,200 performances of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

As a versatile and multilingual movie actor who had more than 150 roles on the silver screen, he was nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actor, playing a Southern sheriff in “The Defiant Ones.”

He performed in hundreds of television shows, ranging from “Gunsmoke” to “All in the Family,” and was in more than 35 stage productions around the world.

As an ardent political and Zionist activist, Bikel served as senior vice president of the American Jewish Congress, and held leadership roles in the Democratic Party, Amnesty International and was the president of Actors Equity from 1973 to 1982. He was an early and powerful advocate for Soviet Jews, marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights era, and was active in the anti-apartheid movement against the South African government.

In his 2002 autobiography, “Theo: An Autobiography,” Bikel wrote that not returning to Israel from London in 1948 was the hardest moral decision of his life. “A few of my contemporaries regarded what I did as a character flaw, if not a downright act of desertion,” Bikel wrote. “In me, there remains a small, still voice, that asks where I can ever fully acquit myself in my own mind.”

A few years later, in 2010, Bikel signed on to a letter that expressed support for Israeli actors, directors and producers who refused to perform in Ariel, an Israeli urban settlement in the West Bank. “I think I am more Zionist than anyone who thinks you should accept everything they say in Jerusalem as truth,” Bikel said at the time in an interview with the Forward.

He gloried most in the his role as a folksinger, telling the Jewish Journal in an extended interview in late 2013 that he was proudest of “presenting the songs of my people, songs of pain and songs of hope.”

Shortly after the interview, the one-time refugee returned to Vienna at the invitation of the Austrian parliament to accept the country’s highest honor in the arts. As a finale, Bikel asked the distinguished audience to rise, as he sang “The Song of the Partisans” in Yiddish. He also sang and recorded songs in Hebrew, Russian and Ladino.

Bikel never stopped working, touring film festivals that screened the 2014 documentary “Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem,” on which he was the executive producer.

As news broke Tuesday of Bikel’s death, local friends of Bikel’s in Hollywood, politics and Jewish life extended their condolences. Zev Yaroslavsky, a longtime supervisor in L.A. County, and, like Bikel, a former outspoken advocate for Soviet Jewry, wrote in a statement that Bikel was one of his “personal heroes.” 

“I have known Theo since 1970 when I was a college student,” Yaroslavsky wrote. “He was one of my personal heroes. The times I spent with him are among the most memorable of my life. The world has lost one of its great humanitarians, and I have lost one of my greatest friends.”

Musician Craig Taubman was another of the actor’s longtime friends.

“I sat with Theo the other day and asked him what it was that made art so powerful,” he told the Journal. “He said, ‘Through the prism of art we become what we were meant to be, spiritual human beings. Souls untied from the heaviness of the body.’ Theo is untied by the heaviness of his body — may his art live on as a gift for generations to come.”

Actor Ed Asner, who used to run the Screen Actors Guild, previously said about Bikel: “To be with him is to be in the presence of greatness.”

For his tombstone, Bikel told a Journal interviewer, he planned the inscription, “He Was the Singer of His People” — in Yiddish.

Survivors include his wife, Aimee, sons Rob and Danny, stepsons Zeev and Noam Ginsburg, and three grandchildren.

Donations may be made to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger or to The Actors Fund.

FROM AARON PALEY: 

“Theo Bikel was a giant when it comes to Yiddish and Yiddish song. My earliest memories are of my parents playing his Yiddish folk songs albums in the house. He graciously leveraged his celebrity to support Yiddish, and it was his Yiddish “neshome” which informed his mentshlikhkayt. We were lucky to have him – and even luckier as a community that he chose to make Los Angeles his home.”

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