A Conversation with Theodore Bikel
Few 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!
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.