Jewish Actor and 'Fiddler on the Roof' Star Theodore Bikel Dead at 91

Austrian-born performer studied in Israel before relocating to New York, remained tied to Jewish state throughout his life.

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Actor Theodore Bikel sings lyrics from 'Fiddler on the Roof,' in which he appeared as "Tevye" more than 2,000 times, after receiving a star on Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood, April 29, 2005.Credit: Reuters

Veteran actor Theodore Bikel, best known for his starring Broadway role as Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof," died on Tuesday at age 91 at a hospital in Los Angeles, according to his publicist.

The Austrian-born performer, who also created the stage role of Captain von Trapp in the original Broadway production of "The Sound of Music," died of natural causes at the University of California, Los Angeles, Medical Center, his spokesman, Harlan Boll, said in a statement.

Bikel's big-screen career spanned more than 150 appearances, including his 1951 movie debut as a German naval officer in the classic "The African Queen" and an Oscar-nominated turn as a southern sheriff opposite Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in "The Defiant Ones."

He also played Zoltan Karpathy, the dialect expert, in the movie version of "My Fair Lady."

Bikel appeared in numerous television shows during three decades - ranging form "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" to "Star Trek: The Next Generation," in which he played the adoptive father of Klingon Lieutenant Commander Worf.

He was born Theodore Meir Bikel, in Vienna, Austria, on May 2, 1924. Shortly after the Anschluss, when Theo was still 13, he witnessed Adolf Hitler parade into Vienna. 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 and settled in Kibbutz Kfar Hamaccabi.

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. But Iin 1945, he 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.” 

In 1954, he moved to New York to appear on Broadway and ended up staying, 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.)

Tom Kahn, Victor Bukovksy, and Theodore Bikel at the AFL-CIO Convention of 1978. (Photo by Wikimedia Commons

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

David B. Green contributed to this article