Theodore Bikel, the Tony- and Oscar-nominated actor and singer whose passions included folk music and political activism, died Tuesday morning of natural causes at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, said his agent Robert Malcolm. He was 91.
The Austrian-born Bikel was noted for the diversity of the roles he played, from a Scottish police officer to a Russian submarine skipper, Jewish refugee, Dutch sea captain and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. He sang in 21 languages.
“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,” Actors’ Equity Association, which Bikel led as president from 1973-1982, said in a statement.
He received an Oscar nomination for his 1958 portrayal of a Southern sheriff in The Defiant Ones, the acclaimed drama about two prison escapees, one black and one white. The following year, Bikel starred on Broadway as Capt. Georg von Trapp in the original 1959 production of The Sound of Music.
But many viewers knew him best for his portrayal of Tevye in stage productions of Fiddler on the Roof. Although he did not appear in the original 1964 Broadway version or the 1971 film, he played Tevye more than 2,000 times on stage from 1967 onward. His latest film was a documentary about interpreting the work of Yiddish author and playwright Sholem Aleichem, who wrote Fiddler on the Roof.
Bikel performed in both in South Florida — several times as Tevye in touring productions of Fiddler and in 2009 in the solo show he created, Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears. In 1997, he performed in a revue based on Aleichem’s work, Greetings … Sholom Aleichem Lives!
He often performed at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, appearing in About Time, The Chosen, The Gathering and The Disputation, where he led a discussion on the importance of interfaith dialogue.
“Even though he had come to fame through his role as Tevye, he was clearly a man whose dramatic abilities were equal to his musical abilities,” said Arnold Mittelman, who worked with Bikel while he was producing artistic director of Miami’s Coconut Grove Playhouse. “He was a great man of the theater.”
Among his film roles, he played the grumpy Soviet submarine captain in the Oscar-nominated 1966 Cold War comedy“The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. He played Kissinger in the TV movie The Final Days.
Born in 1924, in Vienna, Bikel moved with his family to Palestine when he was a teenager, escaping the Nazis. While living on a kibbutz there, he discovered his love for drama.
“I often stood on heaps of manure, leaning on a pitchfork, singing Hebrew songs at the top of my voice – songs that extolled the beauty of callused hands and the nobility of work, which I was not doing too well,” he wrote in his 1994 autobiography.
Bikel is survived by his wife, Aimee Ginsburg; sons Rob and Danny Bikel; stepsons Zeev and Noam Ginsburg; and three grandchildren.