At 90, Bikel still basking in limelight

Theodore Bikel

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Theodore “Theo” Bikel, at 90, continues to perform with gusto, and is grateful for his long career in music, TV, film and the live stage.  The legendary superstar will be the Keynote Speaker when the 36th Annual St. Louis Jewish Book Festival kicks off Sunday, Nov. 2.

Bikel’s appearance coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Broadway debut of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which is the all-time most popular and successful musical in Broadway history. Bikel played the lead role of Tevye the Dairyman an amazing 2,000 times, including appearances at the Muny in St. Louis. 

Bikel recently expanded his autobiography and is starring in a new film, “Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem,” which is slated to play the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival in June (Aleichem was the acclaimed Yiddish writer whose stories about Tevye and shetl life in Russia inspired “Fiddler on the Roof”).

In addition to being an acclaimed actor and singer, Bikel is a past senior vice president of the American Jewish Congress. He has appeared in more than 40 films; some of his more memorable performances include “African Queen,” “The Love of Four Colonels,” and “The Defiant Ones,” for which he received an Academy Award nomination. He also created the role of Baron von Trapp in the original Broadway production of “The Sound of Music.”  

Bikel is fluent in seven languages, and can sing in more than 20. He also plays a variety of instruments, including guitar, mandolin and harmonica. He has been married four times (he wed Aimee Ginsburg last December) and has two grown children.

Before coming to St. Louis, the Light caught up with Bikel at his home in Los Angeles for a wide-ranging phone interview.

You are among the acclaimed fraternity of great actors who portrayed Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.” How do you explain the staying power of “Fiddler”?

The staying power of “Fiddler on the Roof” has to do with the fact that it’s an excellent piece of work.  In the arts, the better the work is, the more lasting power it has.  That is not always true.  There are some masterpieces that are lost and then get re-discovered.  But in general, especially with performing arts, excellence has in itself a staying power. We have (also) found that while it indeed does appeal to Jewish audiences, it has a universal appeal despite the fact that it is clearly Jewish both in history and in geography. And yet, why do people in the Midwest and other regions who have little contact with Jews feel so positive about the play? Because Tevye, in a sense is Everyman, a man who doesn’t let his poverty degrade him.  

You have been a superstar in so many realms of entertainment — music, film, TV, live theater.  Is there any one of those modes that you enjoy most or find the most personally fulfilling?

I am first and foremost an actor. Theater is my life. Theater is the place where I feel mostly at home.  I can acquit myself quite well in the other places, but the theater is the granddaddy of them all.  I have always thanked providence for allowing me to escape the absurd artificiality of everyday life into the reality of theater.

At 90, are you still performing?

I am still performing, yes.  For example, the last time I did “Fiddler” was in 2010, and that was not so long ago — four years ago. But after that I decided to hang up my milk pail.  

Sir Laurence Olivier was one of your early mentors and secured a part for you as Mitch in his production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” written by former St. Louisan Tennessee Williams. How would you compare playing Mitch to portraying Tevye?  Do Jewish roles come more “naturally” to you?  

I take them as they come. And also, in some ways, I have to reach further than what is already within me. Tevye is not a far reach for me.  I am playing my own grandfather when I play Tevye. Mitch, a man of the American South, involved though he does not want to admit it, with Blanche, the Southern beauty — I have to work harder in order to grasp the essence of that character.   But that’s what actors do.  I play a Southern sheriff in a film called “The Defiant Ones,” and I am not Southern, or even American-born. I asked the director why he was casting me in this role.  And he said, and I have often quoted this to students, “A good actor is a good actor is a good actor.”

You were an early member of Israel’s Habimah Theatre, which originated in Russia, and you were a co-founder of the Israeli Chamber Theatre (“Cameri”). In recent years, some entertainers like Lady Gaga and the late Pete Seeger continued to entertain in Israel, but others like Pink Floyd, have joined the entertainers boycotting Israel.  How do you feel about entertainers who would refuse to perform in Israel for political reasons?

They have their reasons.  I have mine.  I would not participate in a boycott of Israel.  I do choose not to perform in the occupied territories because I do not think that Israel should be an occupying power.  But I would never turn down a performance in Israel.  I do hold out the hope — even now — for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. I believe there is a little sliver of light at the end of a long dark tunnel, but I still have hope that it will.

In addition to Teyve, you also played the lead in “Zorba the Greek.”  What do these great characters — Tevye and Zorba have in common — and how are they different?

Well, both Tevye and Zorba are older men, but that is where the similarity stops.  Tevye is a devout Jew, and Zorba is not a devout anything.  If anything, Zorba is the direct opposite of Tevye, who is guided by his traditional Jewish values, while Zorba is guided by his personal desires.

Other than being a native of Vienna, what personal qualities did you bring to your portrayal of Captain von Trapp, a role that you created for the Broadway debut of “The Sound of Music”?

Captain Von Trapp was an Austrian, and I was born in Austria.  He was a very non-Jewish nobleman, and I am a very Jewish non-nobleman.

Through your long career, you have shared stages or movie or TV sets with some major figures in entertainment, including Sir Laurence Olivier, Humphrey Bogart, Julie Andrews and Katherine Hepburn. Without playing favorites, who among those you performed or worked with made the most lasting impression?

Each and every person with whom I worked made lasting impressions on me.  I learned something important from each of them.  Sometimes I learned some positive things and other times I learned things that were not so positive. Of those you mentioned, I can recall learning the value of minimalism from Humphrey Bogart while we were filming “African Queen.”  We were in the make-up trailer and Bogart was being fed lines by a script girl.  He said his lines in a dull monotone.  Half an hour later, in front of the camera, he delivered the lines with clarity and feeling. That taught me a lot about acting.

Are there any roles you wish you had played, or would still like to perform?

I have at this point performed almost all of the major, and some minor roles that I had ever wanted to do. I did have hopes of portraying Tevye in the movie version of “Fiddler on the Roof,” but they selected someone else instead (Chaim Topol). But as to regrets, I really do not have any and am grateful for my entire career.

Any other comments you would like to share with St. Louis?

Yes, I do, but since I am going to be the Keynote Speaker at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival next month, I will share those at that time.