Stage legacy Michael Bernardi carries the ‘Fiddler’ torch on Broadway

June 1, 2016

When Michael Bernardi portrays the innkeeper Mordcha in the “Fiddler on the Roof” revival now on Broadway, he is literally stepping into his father’s shoes.

Bernardi, 31, wears the same boots that his late father, the renowned Yiddish theater actor Herschel Bernardi, donned to play Tevye in the original 1964 Broadway production of “Fiddler.” The elder Bernardi, who died when Michael was just a year old, was the third actor to perform the iconic Jewish role, after Zero Mostel and Luther Adler.

Now the younger Bernardi is not only portraying the world-weary Mordcha, he is also understudy for the role of Tevye, played by Danny Burstein in the current revival at the Broadway Theatre in New York.

Bernardi’s character of Mordcha is “very much an isolationist,” the Los Angeles native said in a telephone interview from his apartment not far from the theater.  The czar’s taxes on vodka have taken a toll on his business. “But, at the same time, he’s part of a movement in Jewish culture, especially among Chassidim, [believing] that the joy of drinking can bring you closer to God.  So I think that as much as Mordcha is a curmudgeon, he relishes when everyone starts drinking and dancing.”

Bernardi has yet to perform as Tevye, but watching Burstein play the role at times “just reminds me of my father,” he said.  “Sometimes I feel like I’m back in time, watching my father in the late 1960s — [especially] when Danny sings ‘If I Were a Rich Man.’ I’ve seen a video of my father performing the song, and Danny channels the same bliss.”

Both Yiddishkayt and the theater are in Bernardi’s blood. His Polish-born grandfather, Berel, was a star of the Yiddish theater and met his wife while performing on the largest Yiddish stage in Berlin. After immigrating to the United States early in the last century, the couple performed together at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where they eventually married onstage. Their son, Herschel, first appeared in a play in his mother’s arms when he was only 3 months old.

By age 4, Herschel had become a star of the Yiddish theater and went on to appear in Yiddish films such as Peretz Hirschbein’s “Green Fields” (1937).  Berel died when Herschel was 8, paralleling Michael’s own experience of losing his father at a young age.  Eventually, Herschel broke into Hollywood movies and TV, portraying Lieutenant Jacoby on the hit 1950s series “Peter Gunn.”

But his career was put on hold after he was blacklisted for his involvement in the Communist Party in the 1950s. Playing Tevye in the ’60s marked his first major return to show business.

“Fiddler” lyricist Sheldon Harnick, 92 and a consultant to the current Broadway show, told Michael that Herschel was his favorite Tevye. “Zero Mostel was such a megastar at the time, and Tevye is such a star vehicle, that it was really very much the  Zero Mostel show,” Bernardi said. “People loved Zero for what he brought to the role, which was broad comedy, reverence and a completely larger-than-life character.”

Bernardi’s father, on the other hand, “truly desired to honor the story itself,” his son said. “Part of Tevye is this gregarious man who is a bit larger than life.  But not to the extent that it would take away from the importance of the plot or the other characters.”

Herschel died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1986 at 62. Bernardi’s earliest memories of his father came from a portrait of Herschel as Tevye that always hung in a place of honor in his family’s living room.  “My father is onstage, and the light is shining on him as well as casting a shadow behind him,” recalled the younger Bernardi, who now has the painting in his own living room. “The shadow is just as prominently featured as he is. There is this sense that here’s a man bathed in light and glory, but then there’s this shadow representing the absence of that. For me, acting in ‘Fiddler,’ definitely more than any other experience, has helped to heal his absence.”

Michael Bernardi began performing jokes at his mother’s soirees when he was a small boy; by age 9 he was playing to sold-out audiences at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles.  “I did an impression of my uncle Jack, who was 80, where I’d take three minutes trying to sit down in a chair, and ‘oy’ was every other word,” he said.

But when older comics complained about his choice Saturday night performing slots, the boy was relegated to Tuesdays “in front of two drunks saying, ‘Hey, kid, tell me a knock-knock joke.’  After that, I told my mom that this wasn’t fun anymore, and I just wanted to be a regular kid.’ ”

Bernardi returned to performing in earnest while studying theater at the State University of New York at Purchase. While in college, he wrote and performed a play, “My Father the Actor” (not to be confused with his uncle Jack Bernardi’s book of the same name), in which, “I was witnessing myself as a child, in pain, over not having a father — and ultimately learn that I must become that parent for myself.”

Michael Bernardi moved back to Los Angeles after graduation, only to find that acting work was scarce. “I was decimated by that, and I knew my mother was in pain along with me,” he said.  When his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, he said, “It just lit a fire where there was no other option than to succeed.”

Not long thereafter, producers came calling to offer Bernardi the role of Tevye in a production at the Priscilla Beach Theatre in Plymouth, Mass.  

“I was terrified,” he admitted.  “I felt this building bubble of fear — that someone in the audience who once saw my father was going to say, ‘He’s no Hershel Bernardi’ — and that just ached at me.

“But then, one day, I was in my dressing room, and my mother had sent me a package; I opened up the box and inside was my father’s costume that he wore in the 1981 revival of ‘Fiddler.’  I found myself at the dressing room table, holding his costume and weeping.  And then it was as if this synapse in my brain went off … and I felt his permission to wear his clothes and perform the role. This great sense of relief came over my being.  I took his shirt and put it on, and it felt like the most incredible hug that I’d been longing for for 30 years.”

Bernardi wore the costume onstage in Massachusetts and found the experience to be one of “pure delight.” To portray Tevye, Bernardi focused on his relationships with other characters in the moment in any particular scene.

He was even more elated when a videotaped audition earned him the role of Mordcha in the current Broadway revival. When Bernardi heard he would also serve as the understudy for Tevye, “My head almost exploded; I was overwhelmed,” he said.  

“I’ve felt my father’s presence on every stage I’ve ever walked on,” he added.  “It’s the way I’ve connected with him throughout my life. And on this stage, I feel the greatest connection. It’s the closest thing I can imagine to getting to meet my father in this lifetime.”

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