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BOOK REVIEW / AUTOBIOGRAPHY : Rich Stories From a Gifted Storyteller : THEO:The Autobiography of Theodore Bikel by Theodore Bikel ; HarperCollins $27.50, 448 pages

October 05, 1994|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

According to actor and folk singer Theodore Bikel, the Prince of Wales was circumcised at birth in a proper Jewish ceremony performed by a physician who is also a mohel, an accredited expert in Jewish ritual circumcision.

"All kings are presumed to be descendants of King David," Bikel observes. "Hence the insistence on observing a ritually correct bris ."

The tale of the prince and mohel is told in "Theo," an engaging memoir by Bikel. His circle of acquaintances has been so rich and varied, ranging from Ben Gurion to the Queen Mother, from Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn to Victor Mature and Zsa Zsa Gabor, from Marcel Marceau to Frank Zappa, that we are not really surprised to find that he used to hang out with the London surgeon who wielded the scalpel on the royal privates.

"Professionally," Bikel writes of himself in "Theo," "I can count three or four separate existences."

Bikel was born in Austria, but his family managed to escape Nazi-dominated Europe and the worst of the Holocaust. They reached Palestine in 1938, and Bikel's early training as an actor took place on the stage of Habimah, the national theater of the Jewish state, and later at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

The young Theo Bikel soon found himself performing opposite Vivien Leigh in the London production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" under the direction of Laurence Olivier. Soon after, he joined the cast of "The African Queen." Over the next half-century, Bikel invented himself over and over again as a character actor, a folk singer, an impresario, a union activist.

Don't bother to look for sex or scandal in "Theo." Although Bikel allows us to understand that his bed was not empty, especially during his London years, he is always discreet and gentlemanly on the subject. And, anyway, he's more interested in the work lives than the sex lives of actors.

Indeed, the real allure of Bikel's autobiography is his convincing account of the real art and craft of the actor. For example, Bikel describes with both authority and good humor what an actor must do to survive--situations that included the perils of seasickness on a sound stage where the rolling of a ship was simulated all too accurately, the frantic improvisations that salvaged a road-show performance of "Fiddler on the Roof" in a tent during a rainstorm, the truly freaky encounter with the Plaster Casters on the set of Frank Zappa's "200 Motels."

Bikel comes across as a well-trained actor and a well-read man, an urbane and civilized performer. His stories are tinged with ironic humor and a profound sense of history, as when he describes how refugees from Nazism frequently ended up in swastika-bedecked uniforms in assorted Hollywood war movies.

"We had a cook in the U-boat galley whose accent came straight out of the Yiddish theatre on Second Avenue," Bikel writes of "The Enemy Below," a movie in which he played a German submarine officer. "We had a Czech navigator and a Serb radar officer."

Bikel is bluntly honest about himself and his work. He concedes that his facility for foreign accents has resulted in career-long typecasting as "the poor man's Peter Ustinov." When Bikel quotes from the reviews of his performances, he includes the pans as well as the praise. And he confronts what appears to be the key moral dilemma of his life--Bikel did not return to his homeland in 1948 when Israel declared its statehood and fought for its independence.

"A few of my contemporaries regarded what I did as a character flaw, if not a downright act of desertion," Bikel concedes. "In me there remains a small, still voice that asks whether I can ever fully acquit myself in my own mind."

Like many seasoned actors, Bikel has been forced to content himself with less than stellar roles, especially in recent years. But he betrays no bitterness when he reminisces about a career that now consists mostly of episodic television. Indeed, he is wry and self-effacing when he remarks on what really matters in Hollywood nowadays.

"The quality and quantity of munchies," he observes of the catering on the set of "L.A. Law," "is in direct ratio to the success and popularity of the show."

If "Theo" lacks the glitz and gossip that one expects to find in a celebrity autobiography, Bikel offers something more bountiful and rewarding: an intimate memoir by an actor who is passionate on the subject of acting, a generous and endearing storyteller, and an eyewitness to history.

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