Phillip “Fyvush” Finkel, an actor with an 80-year career spanning Yiddish theater, motion pictures and television and best known for his Emmy-winning role on David E. Kelley’s Picket Fences, died Sunday at his home in Manhattan, his son confirmed to the New York Times. He was 93 and had recently suffered from heart problems.
The son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia, Finkel was born in Brownsville, Brooklyn in 1922 and began his entertainment career at age 9 on the Yiddish stage, for which he adopted the stage name Fyvush Finkel. Attending a vocational high school, he initially studied to be a furrier but upon graduating returned to Jewish theater, where he continued to work until the early 1960s. At age 43 he made his Broadway debut, joining Fiddler on the Roof in the role of Mordcha. He would later play Lazar Wolf in the 1981 revival and ultimately took the role of Tevye the milkman in the national touring company.
Other theatrical roles include Mr. Mushnik in the off-Broadway production Little Shop of Horrors, and Sam in the New York Shakespeare Festival revival of the Yiddish play Cafe Crown.
Though Finkel’s film debut came in 1950 in the Yiddish sketch-comedy revue Monticello, Here We Come, he would not regularly appear in cinemas until the 1980s. Among his more notable film roles, he appeared in Brighton Beach Memoirs, Q&A, Mobsters, Nixon, and A Serious Man.
On Television, his first appearance was on an episode of Kojack in 1977. He was cast in David E. Kelley’s Picket Fences, appearing in 85 episodes as Douglas Wambaugh, for which he won his only Emmy in 1994. He later held a regular role on the short-lived Fantasy Island remake series, and would re-ream with Kelley from 2000-2004 on Boston Public as history teacher Harvey Lipschultz.
He continued to work until his death, including recent theatrical performances. He was married to his wife, Trudi Lieberman, for 61 years until her 2008 death, and is survived by their two sons, Ian and Elliot. A funeral service is planned for August 17 at the Sutton Place Synagogue in New York.