American actor, singer and political activist who appeared in The African Queen and My Fair Lady
Published 02/08/2015 | 02:30
Theodore Bikel, who has died aged 91, was an American actor who seldom had a day without work for more than 60 years; as well as numerous Broadway, film and television roles, he sang on the operatic stage, made his mark as a folk singer and became prominent as a political activist involved in the civil rights movement, Democratic politics and Jewish causes.
On stage Bikel played opposite Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois's clumsy admirer Mitch in the original London production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and in 1959 originated the role of Baron von Trapp in The Sound of Music on Broadway. Bikel was already an established folk singer by this time and Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote Edelweiss specifically for him to sing and perform on his guitar. The production ran until 1963, earning Bikel a Tony award nomination.
He became best known to American theatregoers, however, as Tevye the milkman in Fiddler on the Roof, a part he played more than 2,100 times over 42 years, though not on Broadway where Zero Mostel had originated Tevye in 1964.
Eschewing Mostel's crowd-pleasing improvisations, Bikel's spare, more simple Tevye was considered truer to the Sholem Aleichem stories of Jewish life in Eastern Europe on which the musical was based. Bikel based his interpretation on his own grandfather, a man he described as "observant, pious, irreverent, contradictory, irascible. He didn't just talk to God. At times, he went one step further and stopped talking to God."
Bikel's film career began with the Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn vehicle The African Queen (1951), and grew to some 35 roles, encompassing The Defiant Ones (1956) for which Bikel earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as the Southern sheriff chasing escaped convicts Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis; My Fair Lady (1964), in which he played Zoltan Karpathy the pompous Hungarian phonetics expert; and a couple of submarine dramas - as a U-boat officer in The Enemy Below (1957) and as a Russian captain in The Russians Are Coming (1966). "I had a lot of commissions in the navies of various nations," Bikel recalled.
On television, Bikel appeared in episodes of everything from The Twilight Zone, All in the Family and Hawaii Five-O, to Mission Impossible, Law & Order and Star Trek: The Next Generation, winning an Emmy Award in 1988. On the operatic stage he appeared in both singing and speaking parts in Rossini's La Gazza Ladra (Philadelphia Opera Company, 1989); The Abduction From the Seraglio (Cleveland Opera Company, 1992); Ariadne auf Naxos (Los Angeles Opera Company, 1992); and Die Fledermaus, (Yale Opera Company, 1998).
As a folk singer he recorded 37 albums in 21 different languages, performed at the Carnegie Hall and, in 1961, co-founded the Newport Folk Festival with Pete Seeger and other musicians.
"What I don't do well, I don't do," Bikel proclaimed, but the category was a limited one. As one reviewer observed, in some frustration, "trying to convey a sense of Theodore Bikel's career in a newspaper article is a bit like attempting to write a comprehensive summary of the dictionary".
Theodore Meir Bikel was born in Vienna on May 2, 1924, named in honour of Theodor Herzl, a founder of the modern Zionism movement. He was brought up in a second floor flat in Vienna's Mariahilfer Strasse, where his father, an insurance salesman, would often read to him from the family's 20-volume collection of Sholem Aleichem's Tevye stories.
Bikel recalled how, in March 1938, when he was 13, he looked out of the window as a grand parade of guns, tanks and soldiers processed down the street, cheered by crowds of Viennese, followed by Adolf Hitler, acknowledging the adulation from an open limousine.
Within a few months, the family had escaped to Palestine, then under the British mandate. Bikel spent most of his teenage years on a kibbutz, then joined the Jewish community's leading theatre, Habimah, making his professional stage debut aged 20 as the Tsarist constable in a Hebrew production of the Tevye stories. The same year he co-founded the Israel Chamber Theatre.
In 1946 he went to London to study at Rada, where he was spotted by Michael Redgrave who suggested him to Laurence Olivier as a promising candidate for the cast of the 1949 British premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire. He had a bit part as one of Stanley Kowalski's poker-playing pals, but also saw much action as an understudy for the actor playing Mitch.
Bikel then starred in Peter Ustinov's play The Love of Four Colonels. The film director John Huston was in the audience one night, and approached him after the show. "He called me over and said, 'Let me ask you a question? Could you do a German accent?'" Bikel recalled. "I said, 'Could I do a German accent? I think I could lay my hands on more than just one German accent.' He said, 'OK. You're on.' "
Bikel went on to play the role of the German gunboat captain in The African Queen and recalled that he received a fascinating insight into the art of memorising dialogue from Humphrey Bogart: "There was a makeup trailer. I sat in my chair, and Bogie sat in his next to me. And while they were doing whatever they were doing to his face ... the script supervisor was sitting next to Bogart, and he mumbled his lines as the supervisor gave the lines of the other people. And Bogie ... was sort of going through the text very loosely and haphazardly and without any inflections. I was listening to this, and 20 minutes later, on the set, there was a full-blown performance."
Bikel never went on to take leading roles, possibly because he accepted the part of Baron von Trapp. Then, in 1967, his friend Harry Belafonte invited him to come and play Tevye in a truncated version of Fiddler at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. He also starred in Broadway productions of Zorba, Threepenny Opera, The Lark, Tonight in Samarkand and The Rope Dancers.
Bikel was a fierce defender of the state of Israel and supporter of Jewish causes, once launching a bitter attack on Vanessa Redgrave after she funded and narrated a documentary advocating the armed overthrow of Israel. But he was not uncritical of Israel, consistently opposing its policy of settlement-building on occupied lands.
Among various political activities, he was a "reform Democrat" delegate to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago where he participated in anti-war demonstrations. He served, variously, as president of Actors' Equity and of the Associated Actors and Artists of America. He also served on the National Council for the Arts under President Carter.
After retiring from the role of Tevye, he performed a one-man show he wrote himself, Sholem Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears, continuing to perform until shortly before his death.
Bikel's first two marriages ended in divorce and his third wife predeceased him. He is survived by his fourth wife, Aimee, by two sons and two stepsons.