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MUSIC : A Long Run : Actor, singer and writer Theodore Bikel, who has played in 'Fiddler' more than 1,000 times, will give a series of concerts.

March 12, 1993|MICHAEL ARKUSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From Broadway to San Bernardino, Theodore Bikel has portrayed Tevye, the poor, pious Jewish laborer from "Fiddler on the Roof," more than 1,000 times since 1967. And at 68, he is finally old enough to bring a perspective to the role that he couldn't in middle age.

"I always modeled the role after my grandfather," said Bikel, "and when I knew him, he was in his 60s. He was quite poor, and went back and forth between rebelling against his Jewish traditions and taking them up again. Now I'm his age and I understand him, and that helps me bring new things to Tevye."

Bikel is also finding new material for the concerts he will perform Saturday through Wednesday at the University of Judaism. He can sing in 21 languages, and offers popular songs he has performed in musicals ("Fiddler," "The Sound of Music," "Zorba the Greek.") and contemporary pieces such as Sting's "Moon Over Bourbon Street." He gives about 50 concerts each year across the country.

"I like to give an all-embracing program," Bikel said. "I like to sing non-Jewish songs to Jewish audiences, and Jewish songs to non-Jewish audiences. Both are entitled to a glimpse of the other world."

Irwin Parnes, manager of the Performing Arts series at the University of Judaism, said Bikel's credentials made him an obvious selection.

"Through his songs, he has been a leader in the Jewish community worldwide," Parnes said. "Few have made that kind of contribution."

Bikel acknowledges such praise but isn't convinced that he has done all he could for world Jewry.

In 1948, when Israel's new independence as a nation was at stake in a war with several Arab nations, Bikel studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London instead of fighting for his country.

"Looking back, I feel it was probably the right thing," he said, "because I thought I could be more help abroad. I was embarked on a course of perfecting my art, but I still question it."

These thoughts have come up recently because he is writing a book.

"I guess I'm old enough for that too, now," he said.

Bikel has also reflected on the balance he has tried to strike between his singing career and acting aspirations. He has recorded 19 albums, and appeared in more than 40 films, including "The African Queen," "My Fair Lady," and "The Defiant Ones," for which he received an Academy Award nomination in 1958. On Broadway, he created the role of Captain Von Trapp in the original production of "The Sound of Music," opposite Mary Martin.

"If I had stayed in Hollywood to pursue a movie or television career," he said, "I would have had a bigger one. But I didn't want to be pigeonholed geographically, and I always wanted to do theater and concert work. I'm an artist, and this way I didn't get stale."

In recent years, Bikel has played villains in film and television. Last week, he was on location in Moscow for "Crime and Punishment," a new feature film directed by action-adventure filmmaker Menachem Golan. Bikel plays a "seedy Russian," he says.

And he still finds time to do Tevye. His last performance was in November in San Bernardino.

"You should never do a carbon copy of that role," he said. "There's always something more."

WHERE AND WHEN

* What: Theodore Bikel in concert.

* Location: University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel-Air.

* Hours: 8:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, and 8 p.m. Monday through Wednesday.

* Price: $17 and $22.

* Call: (310) 476-9777, ext. 203.

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