Look Who's Talking: If I were a rags-to-riches man: Topol

I'VE ALWAYS called myself Chaim Topol, but my stage name became just Topol 30 years ago when I first came to Britain to sing in Fiddler on the Roof. It was difficult for the producers to call me Chaim (pronounced Hame) - they called me Chame or Chime - and asked if I'd mind dropping it. I didn't.

For the part of Tevye in the current production of Fiddler I've grown a beard. Over the years I have learnt many lessons about hair. When you suddenly have hair on your face you find your hands around it all the time. After the last show of Fiddler the beard comes off straight away, as one of my joys in life is shaving in the morning.

I've also shaved my head a few times for parts, and when you don't have hair you get 20 heart attacks a day. Hair acts as a radar and tells you when your head is getting close to things. When you have no hair, your head meeting a pillow comes as a shock.

One of the themes of Fiddler is arranged marriages. Obviously it's out of fashion now, but I'm not sure that people were less happy in the old days when their respective spouse was chosen for them. Who knows? It looks very uncivilised today, but isn't it hard on us that our most important decisions have to be made between the ages of 17 and 27? What to study and do with our lives, who to live with and where. Many of us make mistakes. Some are lucky not to make mistakes, but it's pure luck - it's not because we are clever. Arranged marriages mean one less difficult or important decision to make so young.

When I started out with my wife, Galia, we lived in a kibbutz in Israel with the principle of sharing everything. The only possessions I had were my sandals and my hat; all the rest belonged to the group - even the underwear. All our resources went on tilling the earth or buying another cow shed or cow. We developed or borrowed ideologies, like comradeship, to justify that kind of idea - suitable then because we were poor.

In practical terms, it was a very interesting experience. You understand what it means to live with a group and make concessions. My sister still lives in a kibbutz and so do my parents.

We formed a travelling theatre company and as it became successful we found ourselves away from the kibbutz most of the time. Although we brought a lot of money to the kibbutz, whenever we were going to put on a new production we had to go to the kibbutz to ask for the money. Some would say a tractor was more important, which it was for the majority but not for the theatre group.

My three children, aged 36, 32 and 28, are now my best friends. They are all married and I certainly didn't arrange it for them. Luckily we are all in the same profession and they are my most important critics and advisers.

Galia is with me while I'm working in Britain and she comes to see the show when I need her, but otherwise she won't because she cries every time. And now she cries double, as our daughter Adi is in the show playing one of Tevye's daughters. The scenes with Adi are very emotional and Galia can't take them. It's hard for me, too, but I do get paid for it.

I was quite well off even before I first sang 'If I Were A Rich Man'. I did well with a very successful film in Israel, which I produced and starred in. By the time I arrived in London to sing, I knew what I was talking about.

The money from my success has brought me freedom - to sit idle for a couple of months, doing my drawings or reading books or travelling.

I've just compiled and illustrated a book of Jewish humour, with my royalties going to the National Playing Fields Association. The title of the book is To Life Topol, and it's my private joke which not even the publishers know: Chaim means 'life'.

(Photograph omitted)

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