Oscar Actors: Bikel, Theodor (The Defiant Ones, Fiddler on the Roof) Dies at 91

Theodor Bikel, the Oscar-and Tony-nominated actor and folk singer, who originated the role of Captain von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” on Broadway and starred in “Fiddler on the Roof” onstage, died Tuesday morning, July 21, in Los Angeles. He was 91.

To younger viewers, he is best known for his 1990 role in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” as the Russian adopted father of the Klingon Worf.

Bikel did his first screen work in John Huston’s 1951 classic “The African Queen” and Huston’s “Moulin Rouge.”

After acting in a series of English films, he did supporting work in two high-profile pics in 1957: historical epic “The Pride and the Passion,” starring Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren, and “The Enemy Below,” a WWII submarine thriller starring Robert Mitchum.

He often played Germans or Russians–Bikel’s facility with accents resulted in his typecasting, to use his words, “as the poor man’s Peter Ustinov.”

In Stanley Kramer’s 1958 film “The Defiant Ones,” starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, he portrayed a Southern sheriff pursuing fugitives  and was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar category.

Bikel played supporting turns in Susan Hayward starrer “I Want to Live!” and the remake of “The Blue Angel.” He played dialect expert Zoltan Karpathy in the 1964 film version of “My Fair Lady” and the captain of the Russian submarine in “The Russians are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.”

During the 1950s, he appeared on episodic anthology programs including “Goodyear Playhouse,” “The United States Steel Hour,” “Studio One in Hollywood,” “Kraft Theatre” and “Playhouse 90.” He appeared in an episode of “The Twilight Zone” in 1962, and he guested on “Gunsmoke,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Hawaii Five-O” and “Ironside.” During the 1970s, he appeared on “Mod Squad,” “Little House on the Prairie,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Columbo” and “Fantasy Island.” Bikel had recurring roles in “Dynasty” and “Falcon Crest.”

Onstage, Bikel made his first appearance as Tevye in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1967 and performed the role more than any other actor (over 2,000 times, more than Topol, who starred in the movie version and also appeared as Tevye numerous times onstage). When Topol withdrew from a North American tour of show in 2009 due to injury, Bikel stepped in.

Bikel was president of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America, a federation of trade unions for performing artists in the U.S. including Actors’ Equity and the Screen Actors Guild. He was active in Actors Equity for many years, eventually serving as president in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Theodore Meir Bikel was born in Vienna but his family fled to Palestine after the Nazi invasion in 1938. He began acting in Palestine and then then Israel, while still in his teens — he made his stage debut as the Village Clerk in “Tevye the Milkman” at the Habimah Theater in Tel Aviv in 1943.  The next year, he co-founded the city’s Cameri Theater, which went on to become Israel’s second legit house. (“Tevye the Milkman” was based on the same source material as “Fiddler on the Roof,” in which Bikel would later star.)

In his autobiography he addresses the key moral dilemma of his life: He did not return to Israel to fight in the 1948 War of Independence after departing: “A few of my contemporaries regarded what I did as a character flaw, if not a downright act of desertion. In me, there remains a small, still voice, that asks whether I can ever fully acquit myself in my own mind.”

After making his London debut in “You Can’t Take It with You” in 1948, he played Mitch in “A Streetcar Named Desire” opposite Vivien Leigh and directed by Laurence Olivier. He starred in “The Love of Four Colonels,” Peter Ustinov’s play, in 1951.

Bikel then moved to the U.S. and made his Broadway debut in “Tonight in Samarkand.”  His first Tony nomination was in 1958 for “The Rope Dancers” and his second two years later, for “The Sound of Music.” Bikel had produced and sang on albums of Jewish folk songs during the 1950s. Before “The Sound of Music” was to open on Broadway, Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote the song “Edelweiss” specifically for him to sing and accompany himself on the guitar.

In 1959, Bikel co-founded the Newport Folk Fest with Pete Seeger and George Wein. A couple of years later he, with Herb Cohen, opened the Unicorn, L.A.’s first folk coffeehouse. Later they opened a second place, Cosmo Alley, which presented not only folk music but poets and comics including Lenny Bruce. Bikel recorded 27 albums, many featuring Hebrew and Yiddish folk music. Bikel was growing increasingly political and attended the 1968 Democratic Convention as a delegate.

He guested in the 1090s on “Law and Order,” “Babylon 5” and repeatedly on “Murder, She Wrote.” His most recent TV appearance was on an episode of “JAG” in 2003. In 2010 Bikel was nominated for the Drama Desk Award for outstanding solo performance for “Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears.”

“Theo: The autobiography of Theodore Bikel” was published in 1995, and reissued in 2002. Bikel was appointed by President Carter to serve on the National Council for the Arts.

The Actors’ Equity Association said: “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.”

His third wife, conductor Tamara Brooks, died in 2012, but he married again in 2013. Bikel is survived by his fourth wife, Aimee Ginsburg-Bikel, sons Rob and Danny, stepsons Zeev and Noam Ginsburg and three grandchildren.

Theordore (Meir) Bikel was born in Vienna May 2, 1924. He emigrated to Palestine (Israel) in his teens and made his stage debut in Tevye the Milkman, at the Habimah Theater in Tel Aviv.

Following studies at Britain’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Bikel made his London stage debut in 1948, and his first New York appearance in 1955.

 

Oscar Alert

In 1958, Bikel competed for the Supporting Actor Oscar with Lee J. Cobb in “The Brothers Karamazov,” Burl Ives, who won for “The Big Country,” Arthur Kennedy in “Some Came Running,” and Gig Young in “Teacher’s Pet.”