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Theodore Bikel, an Entertainment Giant, Dies at 91

The Austrian-American folk singer, union activist, and actor, is perhaps best known for playing Tevye the Dairyman more than 2,000 times

Jonathan Zalman
July 21, 2015
Theodore Bikel performing "Songs of a Russian Gypsy" in 2010. (Photo courtesy of Donna Gentile)
Theodore Bikel performing “Songs of a Russian Gypsy” in 2010. (Photo courtesy of Donna Gentile)

On Sunday, April 15, 1979, the New York Times published a review of a Fiddler on the Roof production at a 2,800-seat house at the Westbury Music Festival on Long Island, NY. The star of the musical, Tevye, was played by a 55-year-old Theodore Bikel—already a bonafide film, stage and folk-singing legend—but it wasn’t until the last paragraph when the reviewer, Alvin Klein, described his opinion of Bikel’s performance:

Theodore Bikel is the star, and one knows that a star performance as Tevya can get out of hand. Mr. Bikel knows that, too, and manages to be a star who graciously grants everyone in the cast the necessary space to breathe and to be. In his capacity to command and share, Mr. Bikel gives us as dignified, as virtually heroic a Tevye as I have ever seen, a Father Courage with a heart that helps him tug his milk wagon through a circular journey that is all the more triumphant for its endlessness.

Mr. Bikel is also a humorous Tevye, but he never plays the clown. He sings marvelously, which is no news, but it means that we hear musical values in Tevye’s songs that may indeed be news to many audiences. A true singing actor, or is he an actor singing? In either case, this is a beautiful and rich performance.

Throughout his vast and versatile career, Bikel, who could speak 21 languages, would play the storied role of Tevye more than 2,000 times. Bikel died on Tuesday morning in Los Angeles at the age of 91.

Bikel, who was born in Vienna in 1924, was named after Theodor Herzl, with whom he shares a birthday, reported Haaretz.

Shortly after the Anschluss, when Theo was still 13, he watched from his apartment window as a military parade marched down Mariahilfferstrasse, with Adolf Hitler at its center, standing in an open limousine, his arm extended in a salute, as Vienna welcomed its new ruler.

His family soon moved to British Palestine, where Bikel developed an interest in acting. In 1943, he began an apprenticeship at the Habimah theater in Tel Aviv, where he played Tevye, “speaking just 29 words,” reported the Times. It was his first on-stage performance. By 1946, Bikel moved to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. After graduating in 1948, Bikel was discovered by Laurence Olivier, who cast him in a production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” He made it to Broadway by 1955 and became an American citizen in 1961. Variety reported:

[Bikel] drew his first Tony nomination in 1958 for “The Rope Dancers” and picked up his second two years later for “The Sound of Music.” Bikel had produced and sang on several albums of Jewish folk songs during the 1950s, and right before “The Sound of Music” was to open on Broadway, Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote the song “Edelweiss” specifically for him to sing and accompany himself on the guitar.

Also in 1959, Bikel co-founded the Newport Folk Festival with Pete Seeger and George Wein. A couple of years later he, with Herb Cohen, opened the Unicorn, L.A.’s first folk coffeehouse. Later they opened a second place, Cosmo Alley, which presented not only folk music but poets and comics including Lenny Bruce. Bikel recorded 27 albums, many featuring Hebrew and Yiddish folk music. Bikel was growing increasingly political and attended the 1968 Democratic Convention as a delegate.

Bikel’s activism grew throughout his lifetime, beginning in 1954 when he joined the Actors’ Equity Association, an organization for which he would eventually become president, along with the Associated Actors and Artistes of America. Reported the Times:

Mr. Bikel was also long active in the civil rights and human rights movements, as both a fund-raiser and a participant. He served as president of Actors’ Equity from 1973 to 1982 and a member of the National Council on the Arts from 1977 to 1982.

In 1960, Bikel earned his second Tony nomination on Broadway as the original Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote the song “Edelweiss” for him:

Though Bikel appeared in over 35 films, not to mention numerous television appearances, he also recorded over 20 folk albums in a variety of languages:

His better-known albums…included “Israeli Folk Songs” (1955) and “Songs of Russia Old & New” (1960). Among his later recordings were “A Taste of Passover” (1998) and “A Taste of Hanukkah” (2000), both on Rounder, and “In My Own Lifetime: 12 Musical Theater Classics” (2006), on the Jewish Music Group label.

Here’s Bikel singing in the 1969 film, My Side of the Mountain:

And the list goes on and on, from the stage (My Fair Lady) to the small screen (Star Trek: The Next Generation) to big screen (The African Queen) and back to the stage again. In 2008, Bikel, then 85, starred in a one-man show about Sholom Aleichem, who created ‘Tevye the Dairyman,” called Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears.

In June, Tablet contibutor Leon Wieseltier wrote about Bikel’s one-man performance:

Not long ago Theo Bikel came to Washington and performed his magical one-man show about Sholom Aleichem. The theater at the JCC was full, and the men and women in the audience glowed with enchantment, and when he spoke or sang in Yiddish they understood little or nothing. The less they grasped, in fact, the more they glowed. They were enjoying a warm experience of contentless authenticity.

“[Bikel] is best when Mr. Bikel sings,” wrote the New York Times, of the show. “His conversational baritone is just the right instrument for the Yiddish songs (he sings English translations too): confiding, with an undertow of melancholy. And in the end the sound of Yiddish captivates. It’s as evocative as any story.”

“Bikel,” reported Variety,”is survived by his fourth wife, Aimee Ginsburg-Bikel, sons Rob and Danny, stepsons Zeev and Noam Ginsburg and three grandchildren.”

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.

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