Theodore Bikel, 'Fiddler on the Roof' Star, Dies at 91

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Theodore Bikel

He also created Von Trapp for 'The Sound of Music' for Broadway, earned an Oscar nom for 'The Defiant Ones' and was an accomplished folk singer.

Theodore Bikel, a prolific performer and political activist who created the role of Captain Georg Von Trapp in the original Broadway production of The Sound of Music and defined the role of Tevye the Milkman during more than 2,200 performances of Fiddler on the Roof, has died. He was 91.

Bikel died of natural causes on Tuesday morning at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, publicist Harlan Boll announced.

Internationally renowned and respected as one of the most versatile actors of his generation, Bikel received an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actor for The Defiant Ones (1958), where he played a Southern sheriff.

Conversant in a number of languages, Bikel’s background and versatility led to a wide, multinational range of roles. Often playing authority figures, the native of Vienna starred as a Dutch doctor in The Little Kidnappers (1953); a Germany submarine officer in The Enemy Below (1957); a French general in The Pride and the Passion (1957); Russian military men in in Fraulein (1958) and The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1965); and a Hungarian phonetics expert in My Fair Lady (1964).

Other memorable feature credits include The African Queen (1951), I Want to Live! (1958), See You in the Morning (1989), Crisis in the Kremlin (1992) and Shadow Conspiracy (1996).  

In The Sound of Music, which opened on Broadway in 1959 and ran until 1963, Bikel earned a Tony Award nomination for his work. The musical also starred Mary Martin as Maria. (Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer took their parts in the 1965 version, which won the Oscar for best picture.)

On television, Bikel made hundreds of appearances, co-starring as Henry Kissinger in the 1989 ABC miniseries The Final Days and guesting on shows as diverse as The Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke, All in the FamilyLaw & Order, JAG, Columbo and Star Trek: The Next Generation. He had recurring roles on the primetime soaps Dynasty and Falcon Crest.

Bikel did a weekly radio program, At Home With Theodore Bikel, which was nationally syndicated. He is the author of Folksongs and Footnotes, and his autobiography Theo was first published in 1994.

Late into his life, Bikel wrote and starred in numerous performances of the play and musical Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears, which had its world premiere in Washington in 2008.

More recent film credits include Dark Tower (1989), Second Chances (1998) and Crime and Punishment (2002).


Bikel appeared in opera productions including La Gazza Ladra, Philadelphia Opera Company (1989); The Abduction From the Seraglio, Cleveland Opera Company (1992), Ariadne auf Naxos, Los Angeles Opera Company (1992); and Die Fledermaus, Yale Opera Company (1998).

On Broadway in the 1950s, he starred in productions including Tonight in Samarkand, The Rope Dancers (in which he received a Tony nom) and The Lark.

Bikel was a noteworthy recording artist who enjoyed international popularity as a folk singer. He appeared at Carnegie Hall and sang for Queen Elizabeth, and in 1961, he founded the Newport Folk Festival.

He recorded 37 albums, more than 20 for Electra. Folksong of Israk, A Young Man and a Maid and An Actor’s Holiday featured songs in 12 languages, including Ukrainian and Zulu. He collected exotic folk instruments, sang with Pete Seeger and owned a bistro in Hollywood.

A civil rights activist who became a naturalized American citizen in 1961, he was appointed by President Carter in 1977 to serve a five-year term on the National Council for the Arts.

“Everything that I’ve done and that I’ve lived through” Bikel said in a 2001 interview, “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.”

Bikel was a delegate to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, senior vp of the American Jewish Congress, vp of the International Federation of Actors (1981-91), a board member of Amnesty International (USA) and president of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America. He also was president emeritus of Actors Equity, which he served as president from 1973-82.

Bikel was born in Vienna on May 2, 1924. He was educated in Austria until the Nazis arrived when he was 13. His father, an insurance salesman and ardent Zionist, soon moved his family to Palestine (later Israel) and became director of the public health service. Bikel spent his teens living on a kibbutz and got his first acting job as a Czarist constable in a Hebrew production of the Tevye stories.

In 1946, he went to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. He followed with work on the London stage, winning acclaim for his performance in Laurence Olivier’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Bikel also was noteworthy in Peter Ustinov’s The Love of Four Colonels.

Bikel came to the U.S. in 1954 to appear with Louis Jourdan in Tonight in Smarkand on Broadway. Strong critical notices helped him land the main supporting role opposite Julie Harris in The Lark.

He lived for many years in Connecticut and belonged to the Theater Artists Workshop of Westport. Most recently, he made Southern California his home.

Active until the end, Bikel was touring festivals with screenings of his latest film, Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem.

Survivors include his wife Aimee, sons Rob and Danny, stepsons Zeev and Noam and three grandchildren.

Donations can be made to The Actors Fund or Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

When he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture in 1997, Bikel said: “In my world, history comes down to language and art. No one cares much about what battles were fought, who won them and who lost them -- unless there is a painting, a play, a song or a poem that speaks of the event."

The lights on Broadway theater marquees will be dimmed for one minute in Bikel's memory on Friday, July 24 at 7:45pm ET.

July 23, 8 a.m. Updated with Broadway tribute information.

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