Theodore Bikel, the actor and folk singer who created the role of Baron Von Trapp in The Sound of Music on Broadway and played the role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof more than 2,000 times, died last Tuesday in Los Angeles at the age of 91.
As Richard Severo and Ralph Blumenthal wrote in The New York Times,
A bulky, bearish man with an international background — he was born in Vienna and lived for years in England and British-administered Palestine — Mr. Bikel (pronounced bih-KEL) sang in 21 languages and was comfortable playing characters of almost any nationality, whether comic buffoons or scoundrels. He won warm reviews and a loyal following, but it was often suggested that he was underappreciated — an “actor in search of an ID,” in the words of a 1988 headline in The Los Angeles Times.
To many, Mr. Bikel was simply and enduringly Tevye, the stoic and irrepressible Jewish peasant who survives czarist Russia only to be brought low by his daughters. Zero Mostel originated the role on Broadway in 1964, but Mr. Bikel took on the part in 1967 and never entirely stopped, appearing in more than 2,000 performances of “Fiddler.”He also portrayed both Tevye and Tevye’s creator, the author Sholem Aleichem, in a one-man show, “Sholem Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears,” with which he began touring in late 2008, when he was 84.
In his autobiography, “Theo,” first published in 1994 and revised in 2002 and 2014, he wrote with scant modesty that he was often asked “which of the many things I do I enjoy most.”
His answer: “Versatility in itself.”We first encountered Theo Bikel when he performed for a student group at City College's Buttenwieser Lounge around 1960. We collected most of his LP records and sang many of his Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian songs, including The Kretchma. It's a comic song about a Russian drinking establishment where the vodka flowed all night and Natasha, the singer and dancer, had shoulders that vibrate, but "when she's singing, you see that she can't."
We found a video of Bikel singing this song on The Hollywood Palace, hosted by Gene Barry on May 6, 1967.
(A SPECIAL NOTE FOR NEW EMAIL SUBSCRIBERS: THE VIDEO MAY NOT BE VIEWABLE DIRECTLY FROM THE EMAIL THAT YOU GET EACH DAY ON SOME COMPUTERS AND TABLETS. YOU MUST CLICK ON THE TITLE AT THE TOP OF THE EMAIL TO REACH THE JEWISH HUMOR CENTRAL WEBSITE, FROM WHICH YOU CLICK ON THE PLAY BUTTON IN THE VIDEO IMAGE TO START THE VIDEO.)