Saturday 18 January 2020

Picket Fences actor Fyvush Finkel dies aged 93

Fyvush Finkel has died aged 93 (AP)
Fyvush Finkel has died aged 93 (AP)

Actor Fyvush Finkel, a character actor whose career in stage and screen started in Yiddish theatre and led to memorable roles in Fiddler On The Roof on Broadway and on TV in Boston Public and Picket Fences, has died aged 93.

Finkel, who was known for his mischievous smile and an ability to prop his ears at an angle for optimum comic effect, died in Manhattan, said his son Ian. He said his father had suffered heart problems for months.

He was a comedian, singer, stage actor, film actor and noted TV performer, from Fantasy Island to Blue Bloods. He celebrated his 80th birthday on the set of Boston Public, playing history teacher Harvey Lipschultz.

"He did everything," Ian Finkel said. "That seems to be a trait of the old-time performers. They could all sing and dance and act and everything. It's so wonderful."

Finkel's long career began aged nine in 1930 when a production in his Brooklyn neighbourhood was looking for a boy to sing Oh, Promise Me. Finkel recalled in a 2002 interview: "I stopped that show cold. They gave me a dollar a night."

In the vibrant Yiddish theatre of the period, a solid performer could find steady work. Finkel studied singing, dancing and acting at a one dollar-a-week school. But his parents insisted he learn a trade just in case showbiz did not pan out.

A stint as a furrier was over quickly. "I ruined about 500 dollars' worth of material," he said.

He found himself back on stage when his new, mature voice settled in. He took a job with Yiddish theatre in Pittsburgh just short of his 18th birthday. "I thought 'This is where I belong.' And I've been in the theatre ever since."

In 1964, as Yiddish theatre was dying, he was hired for the touring company of the Broadway hit Fiddler On The Roof. He later said: "I went to do Fiddler for less money than I was getting in Yiddish theatre, but I had to make the move. And it was the best move I ever made."

In Fiddler On The Roof he played Mordcha, and he took on the role of Tevye the milkman in a national touring production in 1981. In his last appearance on Broadway in 1989's Cafe Crown, Finkel earned a Drama Desk Award nomination.

Aged 60, after 12 years with various productions of Fiddler On The Roof, he was cast in the off-Broadway musical Little Shop Of Horrors. That opened up films and TV for him, including Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986), Q&A (1990) and Nixon (1995).

"If you retire, you shrivel up. No doubt about it," he said in 2002.

Finkel was married to Trudi Lieberman for 61 years until her death in 2008. He is survived by his two sons, Ian, a musical arranger and xylophone virtuoso, and Elliot, a concert pianist, and five grandchildren.


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