He created the role of Baron von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” and toured as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.” He also played a Greek peanut vendor, a blind Portuguese cobbler, a Devil’s Island guard, a mad bomber, a South African Boer, a Chinese gangster and Henry Kissinger.
Theodore Bikel, the multilingual troubadour, character actor and social activist who created the role of Baron von Trapp in the original Broadway production of “The Sound of Music” and toured for decades as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” died on Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 91.
B. Harlan Boll, his publicist, confirmed the death, at the UCLA Medical Center. Bikel lived in Los Angeles.
A bulky, bearish man with an international background — he was born in Vienna and lived for years in England and British-administered Palestine — Bikel (pronounced bih-KEL) sang in 21 languages and was comfortable playing characters of almost any nationality, whether comic buffoons or scoundrels. He won warm reviews and a loyal following, but it was often suggested that he was underappreciated — an “actor in search of an ID,” in the words of a 1988 Los Angeles Times headline.
To many, Bikel was simply and enduringly Tevye, the stoic and irrepressible Jewish peasant who survives czarist Russia only to be brought low by his daughters. Zero Mostel originated the role on Broadway in 1964, but Bikel took on the part in 1967 and never entirely stopped, appearing in more than 2,000 performances of “Fiddler.”
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He also portrayed both Tevye and Tevye’s creator, the author Sholem Aleichem, in a one-man show, “Sholem Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears,” with which he began touring in late 2008, when he was 84.
In his autobiography, “Theo,” first published in 1994 and revised in 2002 and 2014, he wrote with scant modesty that he was often asked “which of the many things I do I enjoy most.”
His answer: “Versatility in itself.”
And so on television Bikel played an Armenian merchant on “Ironside,” a Polish professor on “Charlie’s Angels,” an American professor on “The Paper Chase,” a Bulgarian villain on “Falcon Crest,” the Russian adoptive father of a Klingon on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and an Italian opera star on “Murder, She Wrote.”
He also played a Greek peanut vendor, a blind Portuguese cobbler, a prison guard on Devil’s Island, a mad bomber, a South African Boer, a sinister Chinese gangster and Henry Kissinger.
In movies he played several German officers, beginning with “The African Queen” (1951); a compassionate Southern sheriff in “The Defiant Ones” (1958), for which he received an Academy Award nomination; the king of Serbia in “Moulin Rouge” (1953); a Russian-speaking submarine commander in “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” (1966); and an effusive, overbearing Hungarian linguist in “My Fair Lady” (1964).
He also had a radio show on WBAI in New York, opened two espresso cafes in Hollywood, and campaigned for Mayors John V. Lindsay and Edward I. Koch.
“I’m sure I could have had a much bigger career had I followed the advice of agents and friends: Stick to one aspect of what you do and stay in one place to do it — California, for example,” he wrote. But as it was, Bikel traveled the world in multiple guises.
Indeed, after nearly two years on Broadway opposite Mary Martin as the gruff patriarch of a family of Austrian singers (the role later played by Christopher Plummer in the movie version), Bikel announced in 1961 that he was leaving “The Sound of Music.” (This, as he recounted, after Rodgers and Hammerstein had written “Edelweiss” for him at the last minute to exploit his folk-singing talents.)
“I do not believe an actor should provide himself with an insurance policy,” he explained. “After this time everything you can do artistically to a part has been done. I don’t want to be stifled.”
Sometime later he told The New York Times: “Some actors are what they are no matter what name you give them. Clark Gable looked, walked and talked exactly the same in every picture. I like to change shape, accent and gait. That way I never get stale.”
And perhaps never get all that famous.
Sometimes his roles were brief, sometimes extended, sometimes quite memorable. In “My Fair Lady,” for example, he had the small but conspicuous role of the windbag Zoltan Karpathy, a former student of Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison). Karpathy thinks he can unmask impostors by listening to them speak — which he tries to do, unsuccessfully, with Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), a flower girl transformed into an aristocrat by the crafty Higgins.
At other times Bikel simply suffered the fate of the subsidiary character actor, as when The Times lumped him with several other actors as having been “excellent in small roles” in the 1958 drama “I Want to Live,” starring Susan Hayward.
He was more often given his due later in his career. When he starred as a Holocaust survivor in “The Gathering” at the Jewish Repertory Theater in New York in 1999, Clive Barnes of The New York Post praised the “sheer magnificent conviction that Theodore Bikel brings to the grandfather who survived the Holocaust,” adding, “This is being, not acting.”
For a while Bikel was as well known for his singing as he was for his acting. “According to my mother,” he wrote, “I sang before I could talk.”
He began recording albums of folk songs for the Elektra label in 1955, shortly after he arrived in the United States, singing in Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Russian, medieval Spanish, Zulu and English, among other languages. His better-known albums from that period included “Israeli Folk Songs” (1955) and “Songs of Russia Old & New” (1960). Among his later recordings were “A Taste of Passover” (1998) and “A Taste of Hanukkah” (2000), both on Rounder, and “In My Own Lifetime: 12 Musical Theater Classics” (2006), on the Jewish Music Group label.
Bikel was also long active in the civil rights and human rights movements, as both a fundraiser and a participant. He served as president of Actors’ Equity from 1973 to 1982 and a member of the National Council on the Arts from 1977 to 1982.
He was also a delegate to the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, a founder of the Newport Folk Festival and an officer of the American Jewish Congress. An outspoken advocate for the rights of Jews worldwide — he was arrested in front of the Soviet Embassy in Washington in 1986 for protesting the plight of Soviet Jews — he was an avid supporter of the state of Israel but not an uncritical one.
“The American Jewish response to Israel is woefully monolithic,” he wrote in his autobiography. “We who are so capable of intricate thought are almost boorishly insistent about viewing the complexities of Israeli society and political makeup through a one-channel, narrow prism.”
In 2010 he was among a group of 150 artists, Jews and non-Jews alike, listed by an American advocacy group, Jewish Voice for Peace, as backing Israeli artists who had refused to entertain in Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
He also denounced the militant Jewish Defense League in 1969, and, in 1967, publicly quit the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil-rights group, in protest over its accusations that the Israeli army had committed atrocities against the Arabs.
Theodor Meir Bikel was born in Vienna on May 2, 1924, the son of Josef Bikel and the former Miriam Riegler. He later said he had been named for Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, who was born on the same day 64 years earlier.
Bikel said in his autobiography that the family name had originally been Cohen, but that his great-grandfather changed it because there was another Cohen in the village where he lived in Bukovina, an area that has at different times been part of Romania and Russia. His great-grandfather, he wrote, arrived at the name Bikel by pointing his finger at random in an old prayer book and combining the first letters of the Hebrew words in the sentence where his finger landed, translated as “The children of Israel are holy to God.”
The family later moved to Austria. But although he was born in Vienna, Bikel corrected people if they called him Viennese. “I am nothing of the kind; I am an Austrian-born Jew,” he wrote. “I refuse to let a country that so shamefully treated my people lay any claim to me, to my life, to my successes, to my failures, to my very identity.” When he was 13, two years before the Nazis marched into Poland, his family moved again, to Palestine. He apprenticed at the Habimah theater in Tel Aviv in 1943, and in his first appearance on a professional stage he played the constable in “Tevye, the Milkman,” speaking just 29 words. Three years later, he left the kibbutz where he was living to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
There he starred in a number of small productions and, after graduating with honors in 1948, was discovered by Laurence Olivier, who cast him in a small role in the London production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” A few months later, Bikel took over the second male lead. He made his Broadway debut in 1955, in “Tonight in Samarkand,” with Louis Jourdan. And he soon decided to make the United States his permanent home. He became a citizen in 1961.
One of Bikel’s most challenging performances came in 1979, when he was aboard a United Airlines flight from Los Angeles that had been commandeered by a disturbed woman threatening to blow up the plane with nitroglycerin. Bikel, who had just three years earlier played the part of a hijacked passenger in the television film “Victory at Entebbe,” rose to the occasion, rallying his fellow hostages with songs. The plane landed safely in New York.
Bikel’s first two marriages, to Ofra Ichilov and Rita Call, ended in divorce. His third wife, the conductor and pianist Tamara Brooks, died in 2012. The next year he married Aimee Ginsburg, a journalist. She survives him, as do his sons Robert and Daniel; his stepsons Zeev and Noam Ginsburg; and three grandchildren.
Bikel rejoiced in his varied career. “Horizons,” he said, “are not meant to be shrunk. You do as much as you can in as many fields as you know how to master.” He was often asked how he could do so many things so well.
“Simple,” he would reply. “Whatever I don’t do well, I don’t do.”