Theodore Bikel has been many things throughout his long career - folksinger, actor, lecturer, author, political activist.
But more than anything else, he’s been Tevye.
Bikel has played the Jewish dairyman more than 1,300 times, and after a visit to Spokane next week, he will add five more performances to the total.
Bikel can’t think of any role he’d rather do 1,300 times.
“First of all, it’s a superb play and a superb role,” said Bikel, by phone from a Seattle tour stop. “It’s a wondrous thing. I get renewed every time I step onto the stage.”
He first played the role in 1967, in the first national tour of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and he has returned to it at least every few years since then. He has been headlining this national tour since September 1994.
In those years, he has cemented a place for himself as one the best Tevyes ever.
“Theodore Bikel is the match of anyone I’ve seen in the role - Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Paul Lipson, Topol,” wrote Kevin Kelley of the Boston Globe about Bikel’s performance earlier in this tour.
One reason for his success - besides that deep, remarkable voice - is that he connects to the story on a personal level. Bikel was born in Vienna in 1924, and grew up with the stories of Sholem Alechem, on which “Fiddler” is based. At the age of 13, he and his family fled the Nazi Anschluss in Austria. They went to what is now Israel and lived on a kibbutz.
After the war, Bikel went to London and enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, thus launching his career.
The career had many milestones over the next few decades:
He was cast as Mitch in the 1950 debut London production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” directed by Sir Laurence Olivier.
He then landed a role as Humphrey Bogart’s German interrogator in “The African Queen” in 1951.
He was nominated for an Oscar in 1958’s “The Defiant Ones.”
He originated the role of Baron Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” in 1959, and “Edelweiss” was written specifically with his folksinging talent in mind.
His folksinging career culminated in a command performance at Buckingham Palace, and with his co-founding of the Newport Folk Festival.
He led the singing of “We Shall Overcome” at the fractious 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
He is familiar to a younger generation as a recurring character in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and for his appearances in such shows as “L.A. Law” and “Murder, She Wrote.”
His life now as actor, lecturer and books-on-tape reader (he has recorded more than 20 books) keeps him flying all over the country.
“A flight attendant asked me where my permanent home was, and I pointed to the seat I had just left, and I said, ‘4-B,”’ he said. “Actually, my main home is in Connecticut, and I have a place in California as well, because I work there.”
During the summer hiatus of the “Fiddler” tour, he found time to make “Shadow Conspiracy,” a movie due out this spring starring Charlie Sheen, Linda Hamilton and Donald Sutherland.
He also found time to participate in a CD project for the Holocaust Museum. He sang seven “partisan” songs; songs of people who fled into the hills and woods to continue their resistance to the Nazis.
As a veteran of many different “Fiddler” productions, Bikel said he finds this one “remarkable” in its authenticity.
“Sammy Dallas Bayes, the director-choreographer, was one of Jerome Robbin’s original assistants, and he has stayed faithful to what Jerome Robbins did with that show,” said Bikel. “What you are seeing in this show is a very faithful rendition of Robbins’ original concept.”
The show has a large cast for a touring show, 35 people. It also has an orchestra of between 18-22 musicians (most of whom are contracted locally).
“The music sounds extraordinarily good,” said Bikel.
Apparently, this tour is doing something right. Variety, in its review of the tour, said, “It’s a pleasure to note that this production is for the most part vibrantly alive.”
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Fiddler on the Roof” Location and time: Opera House, Monday-Thursday, and April 12; curtain 7:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8 p.m. on April 12 Tickets: $39-$30