Theodore Bikel, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ star, dies at 91

Actor Theodore Bikel, who originated the stage role of Captain von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” but was best known for starring as Tevye, the poor Jewish milkman, in the Broadway hit musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” died on Tuesday at age 91.

A native of Vienna, Austria, who grew up in British-controlled Palestine and became a U.S. citizen in 1961, Bikel died of natural causes at a Los Angeles hospital, his publicist, Harlan Boll, said in a statement.

[Theodore Bikel: A man in full]

Bikel began his celebrated run as Tevye in 1967 after Zero Mostel had originated the role. He went on to perform the part of the struggling Jewish dairyman, and such memorable songs as “Tradition” and “If I Were a Rich Man,” in excess of 2,000 times, more than any other Broadway actor.

The musical, set in the fictional Jewish shtetl, or settlement, of Anatevka in 1905 czarist Russia, is based on a series of stories by Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, collectively titled “Tevye and his Daughters.”

It chronicles the joys and hardships of Jewish life described in the opening scenes by its protagonist as being as shaky as a fiddler on the roof. The 1971 motion picture adaptation starred Chaim Topol as Tevye.

By the time he launched his stint in “Fiddler,” Bikel had already woven himself into the fabric of the great American musical playing Captain Georg Von Trapp, opposite Mary Martin, in the original Broadway production of “The Sound of Music.”

The role, which paralleled his own family's escape from Austria following the German annexation of their homeland in the 1930s, earned Bikel his second Tony nomination in 1960. Two years earlier he had been nominated for his work in “The Rope Dancers.”

He was also the first to perform “Edelweiss,” which was written specifically for Bikel, an accomplished folk musician, during final off-Broadway tryouts of the “Sound of Music” when it was realized his character was lacking a song of his own.

In the film version of the musical, Christopher Plummer assumed the role of the captain, with Julie Andrews starring as Maria.

Bikel's own big-screen career spanned more than 150 appearances, including his 1951 movie debut as a German naval officer in the classic “The African Queen” and an Oscar-nominated turn as a Southern sheriff opposite Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in “The Defiant Ones.”

He also played Zoltan Karpathy, the Hungarian linguist, in the movie version of “My Fair Lady,” a submarine captain in “The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming” and the king of Serbia in the 1952 film production of “Moulin Rouge.”

Bikel appeared in numerous television shows during three decades – ranging form “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” to “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” in which he played the adoptive father of Klingon Lieutenant Commander Worf. In one memorable guest role on the CBS sitcom “All in the Family,” he played a German butcher infatuated with Edith Bunker.

As a recording artist, he produced several albums of Jewish folk songs.

Awarding a Broadway ‘Wonder’

Few figures of popular culture are quite so beloved or beguiling as the character of Tevye, the pious but philosophical dairyman who reached his most celebrated incarnation in the Broadway hit musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” Yet Tevye himself and the musical in which he is showcased can be provocative, too, if only because the character has traveled so far from his authentic Yiddish roots in the writings of his creator, Sholem Aleichem, to reach the stage and the screen.

That’s exactly why “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’” by Alisa Solomon (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Co.) is a delight to read and, at the same time, distinguishes itself as an illuminating work of criticism and scholarship. And that’s why we are presenting its author with the Jewish Journal Book Award in recognition of a book of exceptional interest, achievement and significance.  The award, which carries a $500 honorarium, is presented each year to a book published during the previous calendar year.

Solomon, a journalism professor at Columbia University, earned her street cred in New York’s theater district as a longtime critic for the Village Voice. She also displays a newspaper reporter’s gift for cutting through fluff and myth in order to find the hard facts. Her previous books include “Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” (co-edited with Tony Kushner)  and “The Queerest Art: Essays on Lesbian and Gay Theater” (co-edited with Framji Minwalla). She once performed in a JCC summer camp production of “Fiddler,” and she undertook the study of Yiddish in order to write “Wonder of Wonders.”

All of this is brought to bear in “Wonder of Wonders.” The book is informed by Solomon’s insight into what does or doesn’t work on the live stage, and it is ornamented with her tales of the gifted women and men who struggled — sometimes against one another — to bring up the curtain on what was destined to become a record-breaking Broadway phenomenon. She expertly decodes and explains the politics of the theater business and the psychology of American popular culture, and she shows how “Fiddler” was successful not only in making money for its backers, but also in changing the way America saw the Jewish saga and the way Jews saw themselves.

And she has accomplished something else in the pages of “Wonder of Wonders.”  Solomon has a sure sense of the tensions and conflicts that have attached themselves to Jewish identity in America, and she shows how they were played out in the American musical theater, a place where Jewish artists have been especially welcome and especially successful. In that sense, her book achieves the stature of social and cultural history while, at the same time, her scholarship is enlivened by her taste for the backstage story.

“She points out how ‘Fiddler,’ like the earlier incarnations of Tevye on the Yiddish stage, has come to serve as a ‘Jewish signifier’ for both Jews and non-Jews,” I wrote in my review of “Wonder of Wonders” last October. “But she also shows how ‘Fiddler’ came to be embraced and celebrated far beyond the Jewish world, which is yet another wonder of wonders.
‘[Tevye] belongs nowhere,’ Alisa Solomon concludes. ‘Which is to say, everywhere.’ ”

I concluded my review with the observation that “Wonder of Wonders” offers “a rich and lively slice of theater history.” The pastry metaphor also occurred to Marjorie Ingalls, who later wrote in The New York Times that the book is “as rich and dense as a chocolate babka.” Because I love a slice of babka, I suppose I shouldn’t quibble with the comparison. To be sure, “Wonder of Wonders” is a pure pleasure — not only filling, but also nourishing and even fortifying.  

Report from London: Finding Tevye in the Abbey

Arriving in London this past Friday, April 29, I was immediately enveloped in a carnival-crazed country, a nation-wide block party made up of the tiniest Brits to those who had been alive at the 1926 birth of the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth, and witnessed her marriage and ascension to the throne both of which took place in Westminster Abbey in 1947 and 1953 respectively. Here now was the latest event in the Abbey and it gripped not only the British themselves. One could feel the eyes of the world directed towards London. A veritable army of media some 8500 strong had taken up their posts along the Mall, sending images and reports through the globe. Riding the tube and making my way through Piccadilly Circus and out onto the mall leading to the palace I witnessed a country caught in a royal reverie. Living in California I regularly witness unusual and oft-times bizarre clothing but none held a candle to the lively regalia of mix and match costumes worn by countless merrymakers in the streets of London, many females donning hats so bejeweled and feathered one couldn’t help but fret for the British fowl population. Awash in wedding mania, the Union Jack billowing in the relatively balmy environs of Buckingham Palace, the streets were lined with giddy natives and visitors thrilled to be part of history in the marriage of the future King and Queen of England.

As I surveyed it all, I recalled the word spoken with a glint of pride by a British Airways official as I boarded my plane at Lax the day before, “We Brits do this kind of pomp and circumstance rather well.” Indeed. The air was thick with royal protocol and fanfare. As the bells of the Abbey rang out and I joined millions watching the giant screens erected around the city, I was surprised to find myself conjuring of all things the image of Tevye. For as thoroughly British as the day was, as rich with dreams and newfound hope, it all was set within the framework of tradition. All around me there were British cheers and the singing of G-d Save The Queen, I found that the revelers appeared to be dipping their collective spirits in the well of history and custom, drawing strength from re-identifying themselves with their roots. I heard myself repeating the words to Tradition, understanding that even as Tevye was drawn into the changing world he found both comfort and inspiration from the past.

The day after the wedding I was addressing the congregation of Westminster Synagogue and felt the palpable uplift of the Jews there. Like Jews in America they are part and parcel of their country and the pride went deep. It is with empathetic pleasure that one witnesses the joys of a nation. Yet, here I found a discordant note that was troubling and curious. Rabbi Thomas Salamon, the personable leader of this congregation whose leaders had rescued the Czech Scrolls following the Holocaust and where a Trust now repairs and distributes these ‘survivors’ throughout the world, had something to say about the televised event. While he wished the royal couple much naches, he indicated that amongst the many notables gathered within the Abbey at the wedding, the television cameras had found the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Salamon pointed out that he had no problem seeing the Chief Rabbi gathered in one of Christendom’s great churches. Nor, he noted, did Rabbi Sacks seem to be troubled by the setting where the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost were called on in prayer. What bemused and bewildered Salamon was the fact that of the many invitations he had proffered Rabbi Sacks to come to visit his shul, every one had been declined. Rabbi Sacks, he pointed out to me, will set foot in the church before the eyes of the world but he will not be found entering a synagogue that is associated with the Reform and Liberal movements in Britain.

Afterwards, as I walked through the streets of London back to my leased Bloomsbury flat, I couldn’t help but think once more of Tevye. The character had been pulled kicking and screaming into the modern world. He had taken his traditions and found a way to accommodate change (“It’s a new world, Golde.”) while staying true to himself and his beliefs.

All of the world could see the many changes the marriage of William and Kate would bring, a world drawn closer by Facebook and YouTube, where Kate could choose to alter the ancient wedding formula removing the words ”to obey” her husband, from her vows, a world where the day after the wedding I witnessed the newly married couple driving out of the gates of Buckingham Palace, driving themselves off down the road in a stunning personal statement that they would both follow tradition but do so in their own way. I looked at their passing car amid the cheers then gazed back at Buckingham from which they’d come. Was that a Fiddler I glimpsed atop the Palace?

Maybe Rabbi Sacks will seem him too.

A bestselling author and Rabbi of Bayit Shelanu (where he has led High Holy Days for the unaffiliated along with Debbie Friedman), Jan is in London researching his latest novel.

Tradition, Tradition

On the one hand, the inimitable image of a skinny, mischievous fiddler, furiously making music while precariously perched on a rooftop, makes us sing and dance with joy. On the other hand, the classic story about a humble Jewish milkman, struggling to preserve his people’s traditions while his world is crashing down around him, tears at our heartstrings with sorrow.

This month, just a few weeks after the High Holy Days, Theodore Bikel will begin a national tour of the bittersweet musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” reprising his role as Tevye the milkman. “Everyone is a fiddler on the roof,” he’ll explain in his 1,600th performance of the part, “trying to scratch out a simple tune without breaking his neck. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition!” Throughout the play, based on some of the short stories in Sholom Aleichem’s book “Tevye’s Daughters,” the dutiful peasant, who wears a prayer shawl under his clothes to show his devotion to God, nevertheless conducts a running debate with him. He rails against his poverty, laments that his daughters are, one by one, breaking the rules of his ancestors, and finally anguishes as his world is torn apart by the czar of Russia, who orders the Jews out of Anatevka. He’s given three days to pack a small wagon of all his earthly possessions; his only solace is he can carry his cherished traditions in his heart. Broken, he demands of God, “How can you let this atrocity happen?”

“In many ways, Tevye is like my grandfather,” muses Bikel. “He was a religious, pious man who had the same incessant argument with God – ‘Why don’t you take better care of us?'” And Tevye’s enforced exodus from Russia mirrors the teenage Bikel’s narrow escape from Austria to avoid Nazi persecution.”Of course, we weren’t ordered out like Tevye; we were damn lucky to escape,” Bikel shudders. “The Nazis were already in Austria – we saw the writing on the wall. But in order to leave we needed an entrance visa somewhere, anywhere. Everyone was scrambling for the few that were available. Finally, the Jewish Community Council of Vienna gave my father an entrance visa to Palestine because he’d been active in the Zionist movement. But he could only get three, so we had to leave my grandmother behind. It took us a long time to get her out, but, thank God, she escaped in 1938 – just in the nick of time. Others in my family were not so fortunate.”

Spending his formative years in the Holy Land, which would later become Israel, Bikel learned Yiddish and Hebrew, along with a deep respect for Jewish tradition. Today, he “shul hops” during the High Holy Days. Sometimes he worships with Orthodox Jews, praying as his father and grandfather did. Other times he worships at the synagogue he helped found with Rabbi David Baron, Temple Shalom for the Arts in Los Angeles. He feels close to Baron and is stimulated by the intellectual attitude that prevails at the temple.”David’s services are accessible to a wide range of people,” says Bikel. “He’s created a bridge from the old ways to the new, using both ancient and contemporary liturgy and literature.”

That is largely due to what Baron calls “living sermons.”

During the service, the rabbi calls upon temple members, many of whom are in the entertainment field, to come up to the bimah and recite a piece of poetry, sing a beautiful song or play a piece of music.

A few years ago, in preparation for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Baron again invited Bikel to address the congregation, this time about his recent trip to Eastern Europe. Filled with emotion, his voice frequently breaking, Bikel described the pilgrimage he’d taken to find his grandfather’s grave in the Ukraine. After he’d shed his terrible tears, he’d gone to Poland to visit the sites of the concentration camps from World War II.

“It was so horrible, I would rather have been anywhere else in the world,” Bikel revealed. “But I couldn’t stay away. Seeing these sights gave me tremendous guilt. What right had I to survive? Was there a purpose to my life? What could I do to make my life count for something?”

“All these thoughts are central to our expiation, forcing us to face our frailties and make amends on Yom Kippur,” says Baron.