To a Jew growing up in New York in the 1950s and ’60s, Theodore Bikel was bigger than Zero Mostel, bigger than Peter, Paul & Mary, bigger than Yul Brynner. He was Broadway, Greenwich Village and Hollywood turned out in one very good-looking package, with lefty-unionist credentials an added plus. Yes, he replaced the iconic Mostel in Fiddler On The Roof, playing Tevye, the milkman with five daughters, more than 2,000 times on Broadway and on tour around the world. Before that, he originated the part of whistle-tooting Captain von Trapp in the 1959 premiere of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound Of Music opposite Mary Martin (in roles that would go to Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews in the Oscar-winning film version).
Bikel’s credentials as a performer and as an advocate for social justice were global in scale. Beginning in 1956 he recorded 36 albums of folk music that brought a worldwide audience to the stories and aspirations of ordinary people from the African continent, Spain, England, Israel and so many other places. Songs that stars like Pete Seeger and PP&M would further advance in the folk-music boom of the ’60s. In 1956 alone, Bikel put out three albums of folk music while juggling appearances on Golden Age live-TV dramas and expanding his portfolio as a go-to character actor in Hollywood (among my favorite Bikel film roles was Zoltan Carpathy, the triumphantly vanquished nemesis of Rex Harrison’s Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady).
A union man to the core who was named for Zionist Theodore Herzl, Bikel’s long leadership of Actors’ Equity Association was a model of activist reform at a time when the union movement was all but dead. At the same time, there seemed to be no TV series that he didn’t leave a mark on, no matter how serious or dopey: Gore Vidal’s Visit To A Small Planet? Check. The Twilight Zone? Check. The Mod Squad? Check. Charlie’s Angels, Falcon Crest, Star Trek: The Next Generation? Check, check and check.
Ditto movies. He was as comfortable in The Defiant Ones as he was in Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels. (Perhaps he thought it was a casting call for the tailor in Fiddler.) Theo Bikel was everywhere.
I saw him onstage twice: First, in my second visit to Fiddler On The Roof (I have to admit that, for me at least, no one ever matched the sweet anarchy of Zero Mostel’s original). Next as a young critic, at an unforgettable performance of his in a rare production — even more rare on Broadway — of The Inspector General. This is a caustic early-1800s satire by Nikolai Gogol that was staged in 1978 by Romanian film director Liviu Ciulei (who’d been named best director at Cannes in 1965). The production reflected the then-popular European director’s idiom of essentially turning every show into an avant-garde circus, adding layers of surrealism and commedia dell’arte to the text. Bikel played the corrupt mayor of a provincial town putting on airs in anticipation of a visit from the title character. I still remember Bikel’s seemingly choreographed exit, tipping his hat — which was, in fact, a typewriter case.
Maybe by then he’d grown more comfortable adding a Zero-like dash of nutso to a role. The critics hated the show, but it looked to me as though the old socialist was having the time of his life. I hope that’s true.