Sunday, July 26, 2015

Remembering Theodore Bikel

Theodore Bikel on stage as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.

I once met Theodore Bikel, the esteemed singer/actor who, earlier this week, passed away at age 91. It was back in 1998, at a conference encompassing the directors of programming and others involved with the world’s various Jewish film festivals – I was Director of Programming of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival from 1996-2004 – and, for some reason, Bikel was in attendance. Better still, he sat at my table during the conference’s opening ceremony. I remember being quite thrilled to meet him and I introduced myself and we chatted a bit – he seemed nice – and I especially recall this funny joke he told, in his deep baritone voice. The joke goes: The Pope has been invited to ask the first question of the world’s greatest and smartest computer. His question: Is there a God? The answer, from the computer: THERE IS NOW! (Besides being amusing, I think the joke is pretty prescient, as it’s easier to imagine the current Pope Francis being asked to interact with the computer than his two less hip predecessors.) I mention this because Bikel, over his long distinguished career, made quite an impression in big – his theatrical, film and television work – and small – the joke – ways on those who encountered him. Whether it was his involvement with Montreal rap singer Socalled (aka Josh Dolgin) in a smart, catchy re-working of the classic Yiddish song "Belz, Mayn Shtetele Belz" (Belz, my town Belz) in 2007 as "(Rock The) Belz", available as part of the Rough Guide to Klezmer Revolution CD, his role as Rance Mohammitz in Frank Zappa's surreal 1971 film 200 Motels or his powerful turn as the esteemed Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem in his recent one man show Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears, Bikel left an indelible mark on those who heard his music or saw his work.

I don’t have much of a familiarity with his music, outside of the Socalled collaboration, though my friend writer Carole Giangrande said he put on a great concert in Toronto when she saw him in 1963. She also learnt the meaning of the Yiddish and Hebrew songs Bikel sang as his albums came with transliterations and translations, and acquired a knowledge, also through Bikel’s albums, of the pioneer history of modern Israel. (Bikel was named after the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, and for a time performed at the famed Habimah Theatre, Israel’s National Theatre, in Tel Aviv; he was also a founding member of that country’s acclaimed Cameri Theatre. His family fled his native anti-Semitic Vienna to Mandatory Palestine in 1938.) But I certainly know the other aspects of his career. In addition to catching him on stage as Sholom Aleichem, I also attended his performance as the put upon shtetl Jewish dairyman Tevye in the classic Fiddler on the Roof. (Sholom Aleichem is the creator of Tevye in print in Yiddish.) And along with seeing Chaim Topol (who also essayed the role in Norman Jewison’s excellent film adaptation of the musical), I consider myself lucky to have caught two of the three best Tevyes there likely are, though Bikel has performed the role more than any other actor. (Alas, I never saw Zero Mostel, who originated the role on stage.) If I had to compare Bikel’s performance to Topol’s, I’d peg his as a little harder, a little less jovial, while Topol went, perhaps a little more for the schmaltz. (Don’t get me wrong, I love Topol’s acting, too; he’s very appealing as Tevye but Bikel’s acting is probably more truthful to what Alechiem originally intended.) As Sholom Alechiem, Bikel ranged from arrogant, not believing a stage production of his could possibly fail at the box office, sad, over what he perceived (and what was in effect) as the decline of the Yiddish language among the Jews of America and angry, over the lukewarm cultural attitudes of said American Jews. His was a riveting tour de force performance that never flagged for a moment.
Lillian Kemble-Cooper and Theodore Bikel in My Fair Lady.

Those two stage performances are only the top of the iceberg in Bikel’s vast theatrical career, which included originating the role of Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music, which was nominated for a Tony award. (The show’s song "Edelweiss" was written especially for him by the show’s creators Rodgers and Hammerstein.) Bikel also starred opposite Vivian Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire, chosen as an understudy first before lucking into the lead role and thus endorsed by none other than her husband, the great Laurence Olivier. Michael Redgrave, another major talent, recommended Bikel to Olivier. That’s impressive.

I am not sure why Bikel’s film career wasn’t more prominent – his best known credits are The African Queen, The Defiant Ones, My Fair Lady and The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming, a mixed bag; maybe if he’d gotten the role of Goldfinger, which he auditioned for, that might have turned out differently. Nor was much of his TV career all that distinguished – he’s not the first actor to be best appreciated by playwrights – with the bulk of it consisting of yeoman work on rote shows like Ironside, Charles’s Angels and Murder, She Wrote, playing everyone from Armenian, Polish or Italian characters. He also appeared on some quality shows like The Twilight Zone, Mission: Impossible and Law & Order and offered up a memorable turn as the possessed bride's father in Sidney Lumet's deservedly acclaimed TV adaptation of  The Dybbuk, S. Ansky's classic Yiddish play. The Law & Order episode, where he gave a fine performance as a wealthy friend of District Attorney Adam Schiff (Steven Hill), whose son was kidnapped, was also one of the few series where he actually starred in an identifiably Jewish role. (That was not something network TV was all that interested in showcasing. To some degree it still isn’t.) I retain a strong affection for another, stronger, Jewish role of his, that of Rabbi Koslov in "TKO," a first season episode of J. Michael Straczynski's terrific 90s cable fiction series Babylon 5. Set on a 23rd century space station, functioning as sort of a United Nations in space, the episode saw the rabbi come aboard Babylon 5 in order to convince Lieutenant Commander Susan Ivanova (Claudia Christian) to sit shiva for her father, an old friend of his. For varied reasons, she doesn’t want to observe the traditional Jewish mourning period for a loved one but Koslov is insistent that she must honour him in that manner. To be sure, Bikel overdoes the role a bit – in the episode’s early scenes Rabbi Koslov comes across a little too much like a country bumpkin type let loose in the strange big city/space station, but when he remarks to the station’s Commander, Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O’Hare), incredulously, and in Hebrew, that Babylon 5 is ‘a great miracle’, you can’t help but smile broadly as the usually poked-faced captain Sinclair does, so palpable is the rabbi’s enthusiasm for the place. The shiva scene where Ivanova finally comes to terms with her loss is a poignant and memorable one, not least because of how Bikel’s rabbi remembers his late friend, touchingly and wryly, as befits a long suffering Russian Jew. (Babylon 5 was also the first SF TV series to  suggest that Jews, and worshippers of Earth's other major monotheistic religions, would actually still be around in the far future, as, of course, they would.) Bikel also played Klingon Worf’s adoptive Russian father in Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was fun, though there was no indication of Worf being raised Jewish. Too bad, that could have made for some interesting scenarios.)

Michael O'Hare, Claudia Christian, and Theodore Bikel on Babylon 5.

Bikel’s consistent political activism, from civil rights struggles to protesting the dire plight of Soviet Jewry, for which he was arrested in front of the Soviet Embassy, should also be remarked upon. He protested before it was trendy to do so and did so all his life. (That his Zionist bonafides could be questioned when he, along with people like Mandy Patinkin and Ed Asner, signed a petition supporting Israeli artists who did not want to perform in a West Bank settlement, is an indication of how polarized the settlements are as an issue in the Jewish community. I do wish Bikel hadn’t said he could see “some sort of similarities between Apartheid South Africa and what was going on in the West Bank" but an unfortunate choice of words was not a reason to denounce him as an anti-Zionist as too many prominent Jews did.) Bikel also played a smaller political role, in musical circles, when he convinced Pete Seeger not to cut the electrical cables during Bob Dylan's historic and controversial electric performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Reportedly, Bikel reminded Seeger that Dylan was the same incarnation of the sort of rebel as he and Seeger were perceived to be in their day.

Truth be told, and lack of fame notwithstanding, Bikel was pretty much good in everything he set his mind to, even if so much of his film and TV work failed to live up to the heights of his wonderful stage credits. It was always honest work. And as a real multi-hyphenate – singer and actor in all mediums as well as a writer (his 2002 memoir Theo: An Autobiography was updated last year on the occasion of his 90th birthday) – he was that rare bird that crossed cultural lines, from folk singing to guesting on Sesame Street to ably filling the iconic shoes of an indelible figure like Tevye. His likes will not be seen again. May his memory be a blessing!

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he has concluded a course entitled A Filmmaker/A Country. The course looked at various great filmmakers (Akira Kurosawa, Francesco Rosi, Jafar Panahi and others) who have come to represent their country, at home and abroad, simply because they evince a deep curiosity about what makes their homeland tick, in terms of its people, its history, and its interactions with outsiders and their influences. He will be teaching a course on documentary cinema at LIFE Institute in the fall.

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