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Atlanta by Harper s.

A Conversation with Theodore Bikel

Theodore BikelFew can claim such a rich and varied career as the legendary Theodore Bikel. A well-known figure both on stage and off, he is once again touring the country as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, a role he created on the road nearly 35 years ago. I recently had the chance to speak with Mr. Bikel from his suite at Boston's Four Seasons.

HS:  You and Tevye have had quite a relationship over the years. When did you first come to know the character?

TB:  When I was a young boy. My father used to read the Tevye stories around the dinner table and after dinner.

HS:  One of your very first professional roles was in a straight play about Tevye. How did that job come about?

TB:  I was in Israel at the time - it was Palestine then, it wasn't even called Israel yet - and a theatre company there did a play called Tevye the Milkman. I was a young theatre student, and they pressed me into service and made me play the constable. I had twenty-nine words to say!

HS:  From Israel you went on to London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and there you met one of the world's theatre greats.

TB:  Yes. Laurence Olivier directed A Streetcar Named Desire starring Vivien Leigh, and I was fortunate enough to be cast not only in the play but also to be given the understudy of both of the male leads. And I got to play them both.

HS:  Several roles in London followed that production before you moved on to the United States and New York ...

TB:  Yes, but it was those early days that really launched me.

HS:  Fiddler on the Roof is certainly one of your most well known roles, but you also had a very important role in the original Broadway production of The Sound of Music.

TB:  Oh yes.

HS:  When that production was getting off the ground, did you ever have an inkling that it would become such an international sensation?

TB:  It really became a sensation when it became a film, and naturally the Broadway production preceded the film, so ...

HS:  In the production, you played Captain Von Trapp of course, and shortly after you began in Fiddler.

TB:  Yes, 1967 I began in Fiddler. That was the first national touring company.

HS:  And since then you've played the role over ...

TB:  By now over 1750 times. But that's misleading ... People get fascinated by numbers! To me, if you do a lousy play twice, it's too many times.

HS:  After doing it so many times, is it still as fresh, night after night? Do you enjoy it just as much?

TB:  The whole object of the job of being a professional is to keep the work fresh. It's not the audience's fault that I've said the words before!

HS:  You've been touring with the current company since October. What is the production's future after Atlanta?

TB:  Atlanta is the last stop of this tour. Then there is a summer hiatus, and then we go out again in November.

HS:  How's Boston so far?

TB:  Terrific! Before this we were in Wolftrap outside of Washington, and that was an unbelievable week. We played to some 50,000 people.

HS:  And outdoors at that!

TB:  Yes!

HS:  In addition to acting, you've been a humanitarian and civil rights activist. Tell me a little about your work in that field.

TB:  Everything that I've done and that I've lived through has really informed a commitment I have. I'm not just somebody who mouths words or sings songs on the stage; I'm also a human being, and that counts for something.

HS:  You were also the co-creator, co-author, and co-star of a show about Shalom Aleichem, who wrote the original Tevye stories. How did that particular show come about?

TB:  He's the signature Yiddish writer and both a humorist and an observer of human nature of the first order. He's a source of material that's almost never-ending. He wrote many other books and novellas and they all furnish great, great sources of humor and human introspection ...

HS:  The show, Greetings ... Shalom Aleichem Lives!, premiered in Florida in 1997. Does it have any future prospects at the moment?

TB:  It's possible, yes.

HS:  Is Fiddler your main project at the time?

TB:  Yes ... I mean, doing eight shows a week ... That's a lot on your plate! (laughs)

Fiddler on the Roof starring Theodore Bikel plays at the Fox Theatre June 26 - July 1. Contact Ticketmaster at (404) 249-6400 for ticket information. Fiddler is a presentation of Theatre of the Stars.

Harper ;-)