By his own count, Theodore Bikel played Tevye the milkman in the enduring musical Fiddler on the Roof more than 2,000 times, more than any other stage performer.
But unlike Zero Mostel, who originated the role on Broadway, the Vienna-born actor-activist-folk troubadour scrupulously avoided the Borscht Belt shtick that so frequently was attached to the character. “I’m so much closer to him than anybody else, frankly,” says Bikel. “Because I was playing my own grandfather.”
That is what Bikel said to me when I interviewed him early this year, as a biographical film, Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem, was about to be shown at the Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival. Bikel died Tuesday morning at the age of 91 in Los Angeles.
Fiddler, of course, toured through South Florida quite regularly and I had the opportunity to speak often with Bikel, a warm, serious-minded man with a finely honed sense of humor. Twenty years earlier, as he was coming to the Kravis Center to play Tevye, he told me he doubted he would ever tire of playing the role. He eventually hung up the role after yet another tour, at the age of 85.
As he told me, “When I first played him, I had to put gray streaks into my beard. At last, I had to put dark streaks into my beard. It is an eternal thing, but after doing the show the last time, I decided to hang up my milk pail. I couldn’t do that now eight times a week.”
Although Bikel connected with the show by invoking his own family, he saw the universality in Fiddler on the Roof. “When the show was just mounted, they predicted a very short life for it,” he explained. “They said, ‘Once you run out of Jewish audiences, that’s it, you’ve run out of the audience for the show.’ They were totally wrong. Why? Because when art is good, it is universal. Sure, the canvas on which you paint something is narrowed ethnically, sometimes linguistically, sometimes ethnically, but if the work is excellent, then it is widely understood by everybody.”
Bikel, too, was a universal actor, known for his ability to play a wide variety of nationalities. He originated the role of Austrian Capt. Georg von Trapp in The Sound of Music, his musical theater debut, earning his second Tony nomination.
“I wanted to play the character as truthfully as possible, seeing that he came from a period that I was quite familiar with in Austria. And he resented the Nazis because they were so crude and barbaric, and that’s why he felt he had to take his family and get out. For me getting out was a very different matter,” said Bikel, referring to his own family’s fleeing the Nazis when he was 14. “But there were parallels and I could see them, I could play them.”
On film, Bikel was also a chameleon, playing a Southern sheriff in The Defiant Ones (Oscar nomination), a German U-boat officer in The Enemy Below, a Russian submarine captain in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming and Hungarian linguist Zoltan Karpathy in My Fair Lady, to name a few of his 50 big screen roles.
As to how he was able to change ethnicities so easily, avoiding being typecast, Bikel said, “I’m a character actor. I change shapes, I change accents, I change the way I walk and talk, sometimes I change the way I look. I do roles and they go, ‘Oh, wow, we didn’t know he could do that.’ That pleases me.”
In the 1950s, Bikel produced and recorded numerous albums of Jewish folk songs and in 1959, he co-founded the Newport Folk Festival with Pete Seeger. Over time, he became increasingly involved with civil rights issues and progressive causes, and was a delegate to the 1968 Democratic Convention.
When television became an important entertainment medium, Bikel was seen on such shows as Wagon Train, Hawaii Five-O, Columbo, Charlie’s Angels, The San Pedro Beach Bums, Cannon, Little House on the Prairie, Mission: Impossible, Gunsmoke, Dynasty, All in the Family, Knight Rider, and Law & Order.
There was little that Bikel did not play, but as he told me, his litmus test for taking a role was “It had to have the ring of truth. That didn’t mean that I only played roles that were positive roles. On the contrary, I played negative roles, but always with a slant of knowing what I was doing, in a way that told the audience the character was wrong,” he said.
“I could play a Nazi, I could play a Communist, characters I disagreed with and sometimes despised, but you have to find a reason for doing a role. I would never play a Nazi who was sympathetic,” he said.