Chaim Topol – best known simply as Topol – vividly remembers the time he walked into a London theater in 1966 to audition for the role of Tevye in the West End production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Tevye is a grizzled, 50- or 60-year-old Russian-Jewish dairyman. Topol was a 30-year-old Israeli actor.
“They were surprised to see that I was 30 – and they were disappointed,” he said in a phone interview, still chuckling about it 43 years later.
“But, since I was there and they had paid for my ticket, they said, ‘Well, let’s go on stage and show us what you know. Sing a song or something.’
“So I sang four songs, and they were very impressed, mainly by the fact that I knew all of the movements and the places to go on stage. They said, ‘How many times have you seen the show?’
“I said, ‘Well, I’ve seen it about three or four times.’ They said, ‘From seeing it three or four times, you remember all the movements?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve played it 40 or 50 times.’ ”
Producers had flown Topol to the auditions after a secretary alerted them to his star performance in an Oscar-nominated Israeli film, “Sallah,” in which he played a 50-year-old.
They clearly didn’t know that his Tevye career had begun in 1965 in Tel Aviv. An actor playing Tevye got sick and Topol, one of his acting students, was asked to replace him.
Topol had 48 hours to learn the lines and the songs. He ended up sharing the role with his teacher for the rest of the run.
He did, of course, win that role in London. His performance created a sensation, and it led directly to the same role in the 1971 film version of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which made him a household name worldwide.
Topol won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar. By his own estimation, more than 1 billion people have seen the movie.
He has gone on to 30 other films and many other stage roles, including Shakespeare’s “Othello” and Honore in “Gigi.” Yet he has played Tevye thousands of times over four decades, and will arrive in Spokane next week for eight more performances.
Today, playing the aging dairyman isn’t such a challenge from an age standpoint. Topol also finds it easier to relate to the man’s emotions.
“Probably the most important thing is that I experienced the real-life emotions of what it feels like bringing up children and being married for 25 years,” he said. “I’ve been married for 52 years.
“So I don’t have to imagine what it means to be standing under a canopy and giving away your daughter to a stranger. I know exactly what a father feels like, what he wishes for, and what he prays for.”
Topol is to quick to add that even at the beginning, he had the benefit of some exceptionally good coaching.
“I was lucky to be molded by two geniuses: Jerry (Jerome) Robbins, who directed the London production, and Norman Jewison, who directed the film,” he said. “I cherish what I got from them.”
Back when he was doing the show in Tel Aviv, Topol had no idea that “Fiddler” would become an enduring global phenomenon. He was familiar with the tales of Sholem Aleichem, upon which the musical is based – his father used to read them to him at bedtime – yet he didn’t know if the rest of the world would relate.
Today, he is overwhelmed at what has happened. People all over world – in Asia, in Australia, everywhere – have embraced the story of this Jewish family as if it’s their own.
“The Greeks in Melbourne, they embrace it as their story and their history,” said Topol. “The fact that people – Greeks or Indians or Chinese – say, ‘I cried my heart out,’ still surprises me.”
He said he is constantly aware of the fact that he has become part of something larger than himself, larger even, in some ways, than the show itself.
So, wasn’t it a tough decision to make this his farewell tour, as it’s being billed?
“I didn’t come to that decision,” said Topol, sounding a bit like the gruff Tevye. “It was the producers that came to that decision. If they ask me to do it in another five years, and I am able to, I’d be delighted to do it.”
It may be a moot point. This farewell tour was supposed to last a year, and he has already been asked to extend it another year.
This is one farewell tour that may just keep going and going and going.