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Theodore Bikel and Tevye, the perfect match

Theodore Bikel played Tevye in 'Fiddler on the Roof' for more than four decades, and his role is only expanding.

August 24, 2013|Mike Boehm
  • Theodore Bikel, 89, in Los Angeles.
Theodore Bikel, 89, in Los Angeles. (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

Sweeping statements are risky, but one can be made confidently about Theodore Bikel: No living actor's connection to a fictional character has been more lasting or deeply personal than his lifelong walk with Tevye the Dairyman.

Bikel is 89. Three years ago, he bade an unceremonious and unsentimental farewell to the mainly lighthearted Tevye who drives "Fiddler on the Roof" — a part he played more than 2,100 times over 42 years. But leaving behind the musical was not the same as saying adieu to Tevye.

"Tevye light" is how Bikel summarizes the leading figure of "Fiddler." He now is occupied with full-strength Tevye, the tragicomical character developed in the series of increasingly darkening stories that Sholem Aleichem wrote in Yiddish from 1894 to 1914 — years in which life grew increasingly precarious for Jews in Russian villages like the author's fictional Anatevka.

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Bikel, who became a full-time Los Angeles resident five years ago, continues to perform a one-man show he wrote himself, "Sholem Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears." He portrays Tevye and sings, but nothing from "Fiddler."

Also in the works is a documentary feature he's producing and starring in, "Theodore Bikel in the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem." He hopes it will arrive on the film festival circuit next year. Maybe it could be screened at next summer's Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Poland, where a belated 90th birthday celebration is planned for Bikel, who shares a May 2 birthday with the man he's named for, Zionism's founder, Theodore Herzl.

The immediate item on Bikel's agenda as he sat in a bright and airy apartment in Westwood, where the decor includes a wall of books, Marc Chagall posters and an old but pristine-looking Spanish guitar perched on a stand next to a baby grand piano, is a new live-performance twist on Tevye.

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The Los Angeles Jewish Symphony's concert Sunday at Ford Amphitheatre includes the U.S. premiere of "Symphonic Suite Reb Tevye," a 1990s work by Russian composer Eduard Fertelmeister. Bikel will perform spoken monologues as Tevye between the orchestral sections.

Noreen Green, the Jewish Symphony's artistic director and conductor, says the music darkens as the piece progresses — as do Aleichem's stories, where Tevye's humor never relents, but his sorrows multiply far beyond anything seen in "Fiddler."

"Who else would I ask but Theodore Bikel?" Green said.

It's a reunion for Bikel and the Jewish Symphony, who were teamed in 1998 at the Greek Theatre for a 50th-anniversary celebration of Israel's independence (an event that in 1948 brought on one of the toughest decisions of Bikel's life).

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"You have to realize that the dark side depicted by Sholem Aleichem is just as important, if not more" than the comedy and resilience that have made Tevye popular through "Fiddler," Bikel said. "He has wonderful sides. On a dime, he can turn from a hilarious description of the shtetl and its people, to squalor, suffering, hunger and tragedy. The two together are why I call my show 'Laughter Through Tears.'"

Bikel's own troubles include the death last year of his third wife, musician Tamara Brooks, who was 70. He says the same tradition that Tevye celebrates in the famous opening number of "Fiddler" teaches that there must be an end to mourning and the living must embrace life again. And so he does.

His connection with Tevye began when Bikel was a small boy in a second-floor apartment in Vienna, overlooking one of the main drags, Mariahilfer Strasse. The family had a complete Sholem Aleichem collection, more than 20 volumes, and his father, Joseph, who sold insurance, would read aloud.

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In March 1938, when Bikel was 13, a grand parade of cannons, tanks and soldiers rolled down Mariahilfer Strasse, cheered by throngs of Viennese who welcomed the Nazi German forces who were overthrowing Austrian independence without a shot being fired. Peeking from behind drawn curtains, Bikel watched Adolf Hitler ride into view, standing in an open limousine.

Sitting 75 years later in his living room, sporting his trademark snowdrift of hair swept over his forehead, Bikel crooks his right arm at the elbow, hand to his breast, then flings it upward and outward, in the salute he saw Hitler give that day. In Sholem Aleichem's story, a minor constable of the Czar informs Tevye that the Jews no longer are welcome in Anatevka and must leave immediately. Young Theodore Bikel received the message from the Fuehrer.

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