Sefi Rivlin: A Life on Stage

Best known for his TV comedy, the performer, who died of cancer this week, was one of the founders of Jerusalem's famed Khan Theater, where he also played dramatic roles.

“He was my best friend, the funniest guy, the most fantastic partner and comic genius I ever met,” said entertainer Tzipi Shavit on Tuesday, after learning of the death at age 66 of one of Israel’s greatest entertainers, Sefi Rivlin. “Over the years, we did 2,500 shows together. He was precise, intelligent, incandescent, full of energy on stage and also behind the scenes. We would talk for hours on end; we wouldn’t stop until our batteries had run down.”

Rivlin’s friendship with Shavit began on stage, when they appeared together for the first time at the Israeli Childrens' Song Festival on Hanukkah 25 years ago. And even during the last year and a half, when Rivlin could no longer talk due to his throat cancer, he continued writing jokes for her.

“On paper he would write, ‘A joke for a Polish woman. You do the accent,’” Shavit said. “He wrote me things that were funny, wonderful and warm. He even talked like this; he couldn’t restrain himself. It was stronger than he was.”

Shavit said he even made the doctors who operated on him laugh. “Anytime he opened his mouth, he was funny,” she said.

Now, she added, “he has been released from great suffering. For four or five years, he fought a desperate but indomitable battle. May he rest in peace. It’s hard for me to believe that I’ll never be on stage with him again.”

Rivlin began his theater career when he studied acting at Ramat Gan's Beit Zvi School of the Performing Arts. Initially, he acted in repertory productions, then in the early 1970s, he and other Beit Zvi graduates got together under the direction of Michael Alfreds to found Jerusalem’s Khan Theater, today one of Israel's most prominent theaters. In 1972 they staged its first play, “The Persian Protocols.” Two years later Rivlin played the role of Arlecchino in “A Servant of Two Masters,” directed by Alfreds. Other cast members included Sasson Gabai and Shlomo Tarshish. Rivlin held starring roles in several other plays, including “Catch-22,” “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead,” “Marathon,” “Woyzeck,” “The Idiot,” and “A Marriage Proposal.”

“All the actors, workers and managers of the Khan Theater are mourning the death of Rivlin, who began his career at the Khan and was one of its first actors,” said the theater's artistic director, Michael Gurevitch. “The character of Arlecchino that he created in ‘A Servant of Two Masters’ is still remembered by everyone who saw the show in the 1970s, along with many other characters by this gifted actor. We share the family’s sorrow."

Spreading his wings

From the Khan, Rivlin moved in 1974 to the Bimot theater, where he played in “A Servant of Two Masters” and “Arugot Haheshek” alongside Tuvia Tzafir and Rivka Michaeli, with whom he would later co-star in any number of stage and TV performances. A turning point in his career came in 1976, when he appeared in Naomi Shemer’s musical “Travels of Benjamin the Third.” After that, he left drama for the comedy shows that brought him enduring fame and popularity. In 1990, playing together with Eli Yatzpan in “Ishti Breirat Knas,” he had the audiences roaring with laughter. In 1997, he staged a solo show, “Memories from Paprika.” He directed several of the annual Festigal children’s festivals and appeared in another musical, “Snow White.”

Actress Hani Nachmias co-directed the Festigal with Rivlin in 1993. “This week we’ve lost people from the generation of giants,” she said, referring both to Rivlin and to singer Arik Einstein, who died last week. “Sefi was one of them. Not just another actor. He was in a league of his own. All the words, all the clichés, pale beside his manic talent.”

“Sefi’s end was known in advance,” Nachmias continued. “But the most terrible thing that could have happened to him is that he lost the ability to speak. His chronic chattering, his ability to fire off salvos of words, was an inseparable part of his talent. It was a lot of fun to perform with him. He was wild, impressive, crazy and alluring.”

In 2007, Rivlin returned to the theater, appearing in “La Cage aux Folles” alongside Yisrael Poliakov. In 2010, he appeared in Habima Theater’s production of “Heroes” with Yossi Pollak and Aharon Almog.

“If there’s any comfort, it’s that we managed to give Sefi the IUPA’s prize for lifetime achievement at an event where the best of Israel’s artists saluted him,” said Yankele Mendel, chairman of the Israeli Union of Performing Artists. “We showed him while he was still alive how much we loved him. His laughter and his blue eyes will be with us all for many years to come.”

Gerard Alon, Habima National Theatre archives