A Resonant Voice
The first thing one notices about Theodore Bikel is the voice.
As he settles on a divan in his book-filled West Hollywood apartment, chatting about his upcoming 80th birthday gala, it’s not so much his strapping frame, white beard or sharp blue eyes that make an impression as his voice.
This is the resonant baritone that has sung countless folk music concerts, recorded 27 albums in 21 languages and performed in approximately 35 films. This is the actor who has appeared more than 2,000 times as the milkman Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” besides playing Captain Von Trapp in Broadway’s “The Sound of Music” and opposite Bogie in the film, “The African Queen.”
Bikel has also used that commanding voice to speak out for diverse causes, serving on the boards of Amnesty International and the American Jewish Congress and as a proponent of Yiddish, among other activities.
“I bridge worlds,” he says. It’s an appropriate endeavor for an artist who was born in Vienna, raised in Palestine, educated at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and has summer performances scheduled from Connecticut to Krakow.
On June 6, his destination will be the Wadsworth Theater in Brentwood, where celebrities will fete him in a tribute, “Theo!!! The First 80 Years,” to benefit Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center. Performers such as Leonard Nimoy, Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary and comedian Larry Miller will laud Bikel’s distinctive Jewish voice and his status as perhaps the last of a unique breed of Jewish entertainer. &’9;
They point out that Bikel performs in Yiddish and Hebrew as well as English; that he is as comfortable in the Jewish theater as on the non-Jewish stage; and that he declined to change his name or downplay his heritage to land movie roles, although many others of his generation did so.
“Theo is iconic in that he broke through in Hollywood while remaining a visible Jew,” Miller says. “He’s done very mainstream things as the exact person he is: an active, committed Jew.”
Actor-director Nimoy, a Yiddishist whose parents were raised in the shtetl, has been a fan since discovering Bikel’s recordings in the 1950s.
“I listened to them over and over again, because his music just struck a chord,” he says. “His voice captured a flavor that meant something to me; it made me feel like I knew who he was, because he presents himself in a way that evokes such credibility and authenticity. He’s always been that kind of performer; he’s filled that niche for us, connecting us to tradition, to roots.”
Bikel says that he is connected to roots in a direct fashion. As a boy, he visited the Ukrainian town where his grandfather kept an inn, battled anti-Semitism and conducted Tevye-like tiffs with God.
“He read forbidden books,” the artist says, his voice now a whisper. “There was a whole period when he refused to go to synagogue because he felt that God did not treat his people right. More than a year later, his family was stunned to find him with his prayer shawl on, davening; without breaking stride he shrugged and said, ‘Maybe this will help.'”
It’s no wonder Bikel commands such authority when his Tevye proclaims: “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”
Yet when asked if his 80th makes him think of words like “legacy,” he initially replies with a joke.
“This milestone makes you instantly wise,” he says. But then he reflects that he has, in fact, “spent a lifetime guarding a legacy, the Jewish legacy specifically. And because I am a universalist, I’ve also tried to encourage others to guard and cultivate their legacy. I call this my ‘anti-Phoenix’ crusade; many people these days seem to feel their birth was like the birth of the mythological Phoenix, that suddenly one day they sprang up without memory or parentage. But I feel you must explore your roots in the past in order to pinpoint your place in the present, and to ensure that you have a future.”
“Fiddler” has helped do just that for diverse viewers — among them the Asian Amerians who surrounded Bikel after a Hawaii performance.
“Many of them had tears in their eyes,” he says, quietly. “I asked what the play meant to them. And they said, ‘Tradition.'”
If preserving Jewish legacy has been one of his missions, Bikel was born for the role. He shares a May 2 birthday with his namesake, Theodor Herzl; throughout his childhood, a picture of the Zionist leader hung over his bed.
Bikel’s own father was a Hebraist and Yiddishist who taught him Jewish songs and “insisted that a Hebrew teacher come to the house, even before I was sent to grade school.”
When his family fled the Nazis to Palestine in 1938, the idealistic Bikel dutifully set off to study agriculture, although he says, “I was lousy. I would stand around on heaps of manure and sing songs about the beauty of the work I wasn’t doing.”
When kibbutz leaders sent him to a theater seminar, hoping he would return to stage pageants, he instead fell so in love with the stage that he left to join Israel’s Habimah Theater. After he finished polishing his craft in London, Sir Laurence Olivier hired him to star opposite Vivien Leigh in a 1949 production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Over the years, he says, he was not so much a leading man as a character actor: “I’m able to change walks, gaits, faces, accents,” he explains. “I find that stimulating, because it’s the same attitude I have toward music: You don’t just sing one song, you sing many songs, in many different languages.”
Certainly he has been typecast, although “That is Hollywood’s fault,” he says, his baritone rumbling. People would say, ‘To play the Russian, get Bikel…. the Jew — get Bikel.’ It’s been an uphill fight, but it was their problem, not mine. Of course my agents had a problem. They had to fight with producers who said, ‘No, he’s not right for this role.'”
Bikel was thrilled when director Stanley Kramer cast him in his 1958 film, “The Defiant Ones”: “I played an American Southerner, with no ethnicity attached, and for that I received an Academy Award nomination,” he says. “That puts the lie to anyone who says an actor can only do one thing.”
Despite the casting issues, Bikel never downplayed his Jewishness; for example, during the Soviet Jewry movement, he was among the most vocal of advocates, demonstrating at rallies and recording an album of underground refusenik songs.
Of course, he understands why actors might choose to remain in the Jewish “closet”: “But why should the Italian American let me know of his background, in the food that he eats and in the rhythms that he speaks, and I shouldn’t let people know who I am?” he asks. “Even if I assume that I am going to be discriminated against, I sleep better at night. I’m the man who sang Hebrew and Yiddish songs at Buckingham Palace,” he adds.
For his work onstage and off, Bikel has earned accolades. Artist-activist Yarrow, for one, considers Bikel a role model: “His commitment to tikkun olam, to repairing the world, is impressive, whether or not he’s doing it under the banner of being Jewish or as a citizen of the world,” Yarrow says.
Actor Edward Asner, who will also appear at the tribute, agrees: “Theo’s just had such an unbelievable history of good works and good causes.”
As for his advice to young performers who happen to be Jewish, Bikel emphasizes, “You don’t necessarily have to do the Jewish ‘thing’ in your work at all times, although you do it when it’s called for.”
He pauses, then raises his voice for the first time during the interview. “But you certainly have to do it in life — at least in my book. You have to be who you are.”
“Theo!!! The First 80 Years” will be held June 6, 5:30 p.m. at the Wadsworth Theater, 11310 Wilshire Blvd., Brentwood. $50-$250. For tickets, call (310) 229-0915.
Theodore Bikel Career Highlights:
1943: Joins Israel’s famed Habimah Theater as an apprentice actor; a year later, co-founds the Israeli Chamber Theatre, the “Cameri.”
1948: Graduates with honors from London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
1949: Stars as the second male lead, Mitch, opposite Vivien Leigh, in Sir Laurence Olivier’s landmark London production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
1951: Plays a German officer in his first film, “The African Queen,” with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.
1956: Makes his concert debut in a folk song program at Carnegie Hall; helps found the Newport Folk Festival several years later.
1959: Receives an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Southern sheriff Max Muller in Stanley Kramer’s “The Defiant Ones,” about two escaped convicts, one white (Tony Curtis) and one black (Sidney Poitier).
1959: Creates the role of Captain Von Trapp opposite Mary Martin’s Maria in the original Broadway production of “The Sound of Music.”
1967: Debuts as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
1988: Wins a Los Angeles Emmy Award for his titular role in PBS’ “Harris Newmark’s Los Angeles,” about the 19th-century pioneer Jew. (Other Bikel TV roles over the years have included Lt. Worf’s adoptive father on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” Henry Kissinger in “The Final Days,” a Holocaust survivor battling memories on “L.A. Law” and a space rabbi on “Babylon 5.”)
1994: Publishes “Theo: The Autobiography of Theodore Bikel,” (rereleased in 2002 by Universtiy of Wisconsin Press) recounting his life as an actor, activist, singer, guitarist, writer, lecturer and raconteur.
2002: Completes his 2,000th turn as Tevye on yet another national tour, which earns kudos for his restrained but poignant portrayal of Sholom Aleichem’s besieged shtetl Jew.
2004: Records two major works for the Milken Archive of American Jewish music, including narration for Ernst Toch’s “Cantata of the Bitter Herbs,” a concert work based on the Passover Hagaddah, and David Diamond’s “AHAVA — Brotherhood,” which celebrates the first Jews to arrive in America 350 years ago.