Theodore Bikel Dies: Actor & Longtime Union Activist Was 91

Theodore Bikel, who appeared in movie, TV and stage roles ranging from The African Queen and Fiddler On The Roof to All In The Family and JAG and devoted much of his life to helping actors and actors unions, died today in Los Angeles. He was 91.

Bikel had roles in more than 150 films and TV shows and countless stage productions. He earned an Oscar nomination in 1960 for his supporting role in The Defiant Ones; the same year, he was nominated for a Tony for originating the role of Captain von Trapp in The Sound Of Music on Broadway. He also has recorded more than two dozen albums of folk music.

Born on May 2, 1924, in Vienna, Bikel’s U.S. screen career began in the late 1940s and soon blossomed with a pair of supporting roles in John Huston films: He played a German Naval officer in the 1951 Humphrey Bogart-Katharine Hepburn classic The African Queen and followed as the King of Serbia in 1952’s Moulin Rouge. He worked steadily in films and TV after that, racking up credit after credit. In 1955, Bikel made his Broadway debut with the lead in Tonight In Samarkand. Later that year he starred on the Main Stem in The Lark and followed with The Rope Dancers in 1957. Those led to his signature Broadway role as Captain von Trapp in the original production of The Sound Of Music, which ran until mid-1963.

Aside from his long and prolific career on stage and screen, Bikel’s showbiz legacy is likely to be his tireless advocacy for actors and their unions. He served as president of Actors’ Equity Association from 1973-82 and was the longtime president of the Associated Actors & Artistes of America, the 95-year-old labor organization through which all of the entertainment industry’s performers unions once were affiliated to the AFL-CIO.

“Theo Bikel is a mensch, a tireless force for good, having served his fellow actors as union leader for more than 20 years and lending his voice to significant issues of the day,” Actors’ Equity President Nick Wyman told Deadline last year. “He has had a remarkable, multi-faceted career and there are very few who loved their union more, fought as passionately for what mattered, or honored their craft as much as Theo.”

The union also released a statement today: “Actors’ Equity Association mourns the passing of our dear friend, our brother and former President Theo Bikel. From the time he joined Equity in 1954, Bikel has been an advocate for the members of our union and his extraordinary achievements paved the way for so many. No one loved theater more, his union better or cherished actors like Theo did. He has left an indelible mark on generation of members past and generations of members to come. We thank you, Theo, for all you have done.”

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