This Day in Jewish History / Singer, Actor and Activist Theodore Bikel Is Born

Bikel has appeared in more than 35 films, and as a singer, released some 25 albums over the years but he may be most identified with the role of Tevye, on stage, in 'Fiddler on the Roof.'

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Today is the 90th birthday of singer, actor and political and social activist Theodore Bikel.

He was born Theodore Meir Bikel, in Vienna, Austria, on May 2, 1924. His father, Josef Bikel, was an insurance salesman; his mother was the former Miriam Riegler. Shortly after the Anschluss, when Theo was still 13, he watched from his apartment window as a military parade marched down Mariahilfferstrasse, with Adolf Hitler at its center, standing in an open limousine, his arm extended in a salute, as Vienna welcomed its new ruler.

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Within six months, his parents had arranged to leave Austria for Palestine. They took up residence in Tel Aviv, although Theo was sent to study at an agricultural school. He then settled on Kibbutz Kfar Hamaccabi, which, when he showed more interest in acting than farming, sent him to Tel Aviv to learn the craft. Bikel studied in the actors training program of the Habimah national theater, and was one of the first actors to join the company of the Cameri repertory theater, in Tel Aviv.

In 1945, an ambitious Bikel left for London, where he enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Three years later, Laurence Olivier hired him for a bit part in the West End premiere of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” This gave him an opportunity to understudy for the actors playing both Stanley Kowalski, opposite Vivien Leigh, and his friend Mitch. He didn’t return to Israel for the War of Independence, something, he wrote in his 1994 autobiography, that “a few of my contemporaries regarded as a character flaw, if not a downright act of desertion.”

Bikel has made up for it by remaining intimately connected with Israel throughout his life, visiting and performing here frequently, participating in Zionist Congresses, and speaking out regularly on political issues. He is also chairman of the Progressive Partners for Israel, formerly Meretz USA.

In 1954, Bikel was invited to New York to appear on Broadway. The role was a supporting one, in a play that closed within weeks. But Bikel never left the United States, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1961. Many stage roles followed, most notably, in “The Sound of Music,” in 1959, in which he originated the role of Baron von Trapp. (The song “Edelweiss” was written for Bikel by Rogers and Hammerstein at the last minute, while the play was previewing out of town.)

Bikel may be most identified with the role of Tevye, in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Though he never appeared in the play on Broadway, he toured in the show for decades, and before retiring from the role last year, he played Tevye in more than 2,100 performances.

In general, Sholom Aleichem has been a lifelong love of Bikel’s: His first paid role, at Habima, was in an earlier version of Sholem Aleichem’s tales, “Tevye and His Daughters,” and in more recent years, he has toured with his own production, “Sholom Aleichem: Laughter through Tears,” and has also been working on a film about the great Yiddish writer.

Bikel has also appeared in more than 35 films, and as a singer, released some 25 albums over the years – of Yiddish songs, folk songs, protest numbers. He has also appeared in a number of operatic productions.

He was on the founding board of the Newport Folk Festival, in 1959, served as a delegate to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and has been active in a number of different artists’ labor organizations, including the Associated Actors and Artistes of America, of which he’s president.

Bikel has been married four times, most recently this past December, and he has two grown sons.

Happy Birthday, Theodore Bikel.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen