"Some actors are what they are no matter what name you give them," Theodore Bikel says. "Clark Gable looked, walked and talked exactly the same in every picture. I like to change shape, accent and gait. That way I never get stale."
While Bikel's approach to work may be more challenging than Gable's, it has one major drawback: lack of recognition. Almost everyone can conjure up a clear image of Gable, even though he has been dead for 27 years. Bikel's image proves to be much more elusive.
Consider his latest three jobs in Hollywood:
--On "Falcon Crest" this season, he is portraying a Bulgarian villain in four episodes (including tonight's at 10 on CBS). "He is one of the most deliciously evil characters I've played," Bikel says with pleasure. "I speak with a strong Bulgarian accent. When I played the Moldavian prime minister on 'Dynasty' (several years ago), I spoke very British English."
--On Sunday's episode of "Buck James" on ABC, he plays "an elderly Jewish person, the grandfather of a lady surgeon at the hospital. Grandpa and Grandma come to visit their daughter and meet her new boyfriend. They're concerned that he's not Jewish and carries a gun."
--For KCET's "Los Angeles History Project," to air in May, he has just completed filming a 30-minute monologue about Los Angeles in 1915 as seen through the eyes of Jewish pioneer Harris Newmark, age 82.
"Newmark left Prussia when he was 11," Bikel says. "He stopped in New York for a day to look around. Then he went by boat to California, via Nicaragua, landing at San Pedro in 1853. Newmark had one of the first telephones in Los Angeles. His number was easy to call--it was 5."
In order to look like Newmark, Bikel, 63, spent three hours each morning in the makeup chair. Using a Yiddish-like inverted sentence, he jokes, " 'Falcon Crest' money they don't pay you, but I'm tickled to do it. I do other things in order to permit myself the luxury of doing this project."
Harris Newmark will be in no way reminiscent of one of Bikel's most famous stage portrayals, Tevye the Milkman in "Fiddler on the Roof."
"I've done 'Fiddler' at least 940 times," he says. "That story was set in 1905, but those were Eastern-European Jews. Newmark came from what I perceive to be a very Germanic and assimilated family. We're talking rich Jews here."
Bikel, who was born in Vienna and emigrated with his parents to Palestine when he was 13, is an authority on Jewish history. He became interested in acting while working on a kibbutz, and in 1947 went to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He came to the United States in the mid-1950s.
Although he has appeared in more than 30 films and received an Oscar nomination for his performance in "The Defiant Ones" in 1958, many of his older fans know him through his folk singing.
"Colleges don't book old fuddy-duddies like me now," he says, referring to his once extensive college touring schedule. "In the old days the faculty had a say about who came to perform. Today, if there's any money in the budget, students spend it on rock concerts."
Bikel has tried to adapt himself to the times. "I've added Jacques Brel songs and a few songs from musical shows," he says, "but I'd never abandon the folk material. I've had some of it arranged for orchestras. Several years ago I gave a concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl."
He also writes articles and gives lectures on a wide range of subjects. He gives an example: "I talk to IBM executives about the necessity of a cultural counterbalance in a world dominated by computers."
The man is never at a loss for a topic. "My sons (18 and 16) say, 'Other people's fathers collect baseball cards or butterflies. Our dad collects words.' It's true. I am a word person. I love words. I juggle with them."
Surprisingly, he says he would like to juggle with them every week on a television series. "I've got to work," he explains. "If you're a regular on a show, you still have half a year to do other work"--such as traveling around the world giving concerts and lectures in French, German, Hebrew, Yiddish, Spanish and Russian.
"I think of myself as a man of the world, at home in many cultures and languages," he says. "But in Los Angeles, when you're not there, they think you're sick. When you're sick, they think you're dead. You have to remind them you're neither of those."
What Bikel needs is a big hit. He doesn't think it will be his recently completed film "Dark Tower," with Michael Moriarty, Jenny Agutter and Kevin McCarthy. "It's about the occult" is all he'll say.
Instead, he looks toward television to overcome what he perceives as an identity problem.
"In this town, people in power are very young. What do you say when a vice president of a studio, who was in diapers when you got an Academy Award nomination, asks you, 'What have you done?' Do you go after him with a knife? Of course not. You smile and try to get work on 'Family Ties.' "