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Theater : Theodore Bikel, Fiddler, on the Truth

March 10, 1995|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Between matinee and evening performances of "Fiddler on the Roof" the other day, Theodore Bikel finally got a phone call in his dressing room in Charlotte, N.C.

It took 15 minutes of phone tag, with the full modern panoply of pre-recorded menu and submenu instructions, and then having to rouse the house manager on a live emergency line to reach him.

Bikel, who stars as Tevye, wasn't even trying to get away. All he was doing was waiting by the phone, sitting in his makeup and eating a turkey sandwich.

Asked how the matinee went, Bikel sounded pleased. The audience gave the show a standing ovation, he said, not one of those indiscriminate Standing Os.

"It was not what I call a 'standing ovulation,' " said the star, who has played Tevye roughly 1,250 times over the past 27 years. "You can tell the difference. You can always tell when it's real.

"But ovations are not what you work for. You work for laughs and stillnesses, for people being moved in the right places. And you can tell that, too."

The revival of this Broadway musical classic is currently touring the country and opens Tuesday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts for a weeklong engagement.

Bikel, 70, does not shy from speaking his mind on the record. In his recently published autobiography, "Theo" from HarperCollins, he recalls seeing the original 1964 "Fiddler" on Broadway and criticizes Zero Mostel for being too much of a comedian in the role.

"He committed excesses on stage that delighted the audience because they were funny," Bikel writes of the second time he caught Mostel's Tony Award-winning performance. "Everything that Zero did was funny but not necessarily right."

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For instance, he saw Mostel's hand " accidentally fall into a pail of milk, and for the next three minutes the play revolved around wringing milk out of a sleeve." This, Bikel notes, broke faith with the authenticity of the character.

Mostel's Broadway successors, Herschel Bernardi and Luther Adler, were "properly cast," and both brought seriousness to the role. But Adler was "perhaps too serious"; according to Bikel, Adler even suggested that "If I Were a Rich Man" be cut.

What would be the weakness in his own performance?

"I have from time to time been accused of being a shade too human," Bikel said. "In other words, I don't do this as a star-turn. Obviously, Tevye is a star role. But I take a back seat when I think it is proper to do so. You must let other people shine and have their moments. If that's a fault, I plead guilty."

Except for Topol, who starred in the movie version of "Fiddler on the Roof," Bikel is more closely associated with the starring role these days than any other actor. There is, however, no mention of Topol or his performance in Bikel's autobiography. "I know him quite well," he said. "I don't particularly subscribe to his interpretation. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he's a native-born Israeli. You see, there's a quality that Tevye has to have, which doesn't come easily to Israelis."

Tevye, the village milkman, lives in Czarist Russia in the mythical Jewish shtetl of Anatevka.

"He has to know how to bow to authority while retaining his dignity," Bikel explained. "Bowing to authority, especially to anti-Semitic authority, is not easy for an Israeli."

(Bikel--named after Theodor Herzl, father of modern Zionism--lived in Palestine for eight years before it became the state of Israel. He fled there with his parents from his native Vienna shortly after Hitler annexed Austria in 1938.)

Even as a young man, he spoke his mind. A self-taught singer and guitarist, Bikel left his kibbutz to train as an actor at the Habimah Theatre (now the national theater of Israel). But 18 months later, with only bit parts to show for his effort, he wrote the theater board: "Either I have talent or I don't. If I don't, then why do you keep me hanging around. . . . If I do, why don't you give me proper roles to play?"

When that got him nowhere, Bikel left Palestine to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. Two years later, in 1948, he made his West End debut under Laurence Olivier's direction as Mitch, opposite Vivien Leigh's Blanche in the acclaimed British production of "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Bikel eventually migrated to Broadway, originating the role of Captain von Trapp opposite Mary Martin's Maria in "The Sound of Music." Though he played Von Trapp for two years and roughly 800 performances, he didn't land the movie role.

"There was some discussion about offering it to me," he said. "But Mary Martin was clearly too old to play a little postulant nun on film. It was impolite--and impolitic--to offer me the movie and not her. I know that's what occurred for a fact because Bob Wise (who directed the movie) happens to be a friend of mine."

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