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It's tradition: Topol is Tevye

The Israeli-born actor has made a career of playing 'Fiddler on the Roof's' milkman, but it's coming to an end.

July 21, 2009|Susan King

Chaim Topol was so young when he starred as Tevye in the 1971 movie version of the musical "Fiddler on the Roof" that he had to spend more than two hours in the makeup chair every day to transform himself into a middle-aged milkman.

The makeup artist would even pluck gray whiskers from the beard of director Norman Jewison and glue them into Topol's eyebrows.

But Topol is now 73 and there isn't any need for old-age makeup when he plays Tevye on the current tour that arrives tonight for a 2 1/2 -week engagement at Hollywood's Pantages Theatre.

"Tevye has gotten younger, and I've gotten older," said Topol with a laugh by phone last week in San Diego, where the show was touring.

But, Topol is quick to note, "I still don't have white hair in my eyebrows."

As the show's famous opening song says, Topol playing Tevye has become a tradition. The Israeli-born actor estimated that he's played the beleaguered Russian-Jewish dairyman who speaks to God more than 2,500 times during the past four decades. (However, this is his "farewell" tour. Topol says he will be hanging up Tevye's milk pail for good when it ends in June.)

When he began his journey as Tevye in Tel Aviv in the mid-1960s, Tevye was all of 30. And he was just 34 when he starred in the classic film version, for which he received an Oscar nomination for best actor.

"When I did it in 1967 in London and even on tour in 1989, I was very concerned about the age," he said. "Most of my energy went to maintain and convince the audience I was 52 or something like that. I was closing the muscles and making sure that I didn't do any gesture that may break the illusion, so I was very careful about that. Now I am completely free. I don't worry about looking too young, so I really enjoy it now."

Historic musical

Based on "Tevye and His Daughters" and other stories by Sholem Aleichem, "Fiddler on the Roof" premiered on Broadway in 1964 with Zero Mostel in the title role. The first musical in Broadway history to surpass 3,000 performances, "Fiddler" is set in the tiny town of Anatevka in the czarist Russia of 1905.

Tevye is a poor milkman with five daughters who is trying to maintain family and religious traditions, something his three oldest strong-willed daughters have a hard time understanding. Eventually, the town's Jewish families are evicted from their village by edict of the czar.

Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick penned the score of "Fiddler," winner of nine Tony Awards; Joseph Stein adapted the stories. Standards include "If I Were a Rich Man," "Sunrise, Sunset" and "Tradition."

Topol appeared on Broadway in a "Fiddler" revival in 1990-91 and received a Tony nomination for his performance.

Life experience has only enriched his performance, Topol said. When Tevye gives away his daughter to marriage, the actor used to imagine what it was like to give your children away to strangers.

"But now I have given away three of my children, two girls and a boy, to strangers who have come along -- wonderful strangers -- and I know exactly how a father feels."

Even when Tevye sings the tune "Do You Love Me?" to his wife, Golde, and asks her if she loves him after 25 years of marriage, Topol's initial response was: "I was married like eight years, so I was thinking '25 years! How can people live together 25 years?' Now I am thinking, '25 years? They are children. What do they know?" I have been married 52 years. This kind of experience I hope makes Tevye more real."

The show's director and choreographer, Sammy Dallas Bayes, originally worked with Topol in the film version.

"I know his ins and outs," he said.

He was worried, though, that Topol would have problems with the show's new set because some of the direction and choreography would need to change to accommodate the new scenery. "My first thought was, 'He's not going to like this.' But he looked at it and I explained to him why it was changed, and he loved it."

"Working with Topol is an adventure," said Susan Cella, who costars as Golde. She played the role about nine years ago on tour with Theodore Bikel.

"He knows this piece backward and forward," she said of Topol. "He is the grand master on stage. He has just every bit of charisma and power and command you would expect, especially for someone that age."

Topol, she said, "is greeted like a rock star at the beginning and the end of the play. You say Bon Jovi is performing -- that's the kind of reception we get."

Bikel played the humor of the piece, but Topol, said Cella, is a much more sensitive Tevye, "especially in the second act, when things hit him very emotionally."

It was his emotional and dramatic ability that convinced Jewison that Topol would be the perfect Tevye for film. Jewison had seen Mostel do it on Broadway but felt the production was "American Yiddish theater." But the London production with Topol had a far more European sensibility closer to Sholem Aleichem's stories.

The right look

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