Theodore Bikel: Actor who created the role of Captain von Trapp but was as well-known for his folk singing and political activism


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Theodore Bikel was an actor and singer who was nominated for Tonys and an Oscar and whose passions included folk music and political activism. 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 spoke nine languages and could sing in 21.

“No one loved theatre more, his union better or cherished actors like Theo did, US Equity said in a statement. “He has left an indelible mark on generation of members past and generations of members to come,” Bikel was the union’s president from 1973-1982.

He appeared on numerous television shows, recorded books on tape, appeared in opera productions and issued more than 20 contemporary and folk music albums. 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. In 1959 he starred on Broadway as Captain Georg von Trapp in the original production of The Sound of Music.

But American audiences knew him best for his portrayal of Tevye in stage productions of Fiddler on the Roof. Although he didn’t 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 the Yiddish author and playwright Sholem Aleichem, who wrote Fiddler on the Roof.

Among his film roles were the grumpy Soviet submarine captain in the Oscar-nominated 1966 Cold War comedy The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, and he played Kissinger in the TV film The Final Days.

A prolific recording artist, Bikel also helped found the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, an event that has drawn hundreds of thousands of fans to Rhode Island over the decades and launched the careers of many musicians. He recorded 37 albums and sang with Pete Seeger and The Weavers. Bikel, who referred to himself as “the poor man’s Peter Ustinov”, was 80 when he received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in 2005. Friends including Martin Landau and Ed Asner were among those who flanked him during the ceremony. “Finally, Theo gets his due!” said Asner.

He spent much of his youth in Palestine and was devoted to Jewish causes, as well as the Democratic Party and human rights groups. He was one of six leaders of the American Jewish Congress arrested while protesting in 1986 outside the Soviet embassy in Washington over that government’s restrictions on letting Jews leave the country. He didn’t consider his activism at odds with his work as a performer. In fact, he said he thrived on the variety in his life. “Professionally, I can count three or four separate existences,” he said.

Born in 1924, in Vienna, Bikel moved with his family to Palestine when he was a teenager. 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.

He began acting in Tel Aviv’s Habimah Theatre in 1943, then moved in 1946 to London to study at Rada. Within a few years he had won a role as Stanley Kowalski’s friend Mitch in the West End premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire , directed by Laurence Olivier and starring his wife, Vivien Leigh.

Bikel graduated from understudy when the original Mitch came down with flu. Bikel went directly to Leigh’s dressing room to ask if she wanted to rehearse with him, to make sure he was right for the part. She replied that she did not need to: “Go and do it,” she said. “You are a professional, and Larry gave you this job because he trusted you to do it well.” After the show, she told him, “Well done.”

He made his Broadway debut in 1955 in Tonight in Samarkand and in 1958 was nominated for a Tony for The Rope Dancers. In 1959 he created the role of Captain von Trapp in the original Broadway production of The Sound of Music, opposite Mary Martin as Maria. It earned him a second Tony nomination. As a folk musician, Bikel made his concert debut in 1956 and went on to write, perform and translate lyrics to music for several decades.

He became a US citizen in 1961, and said in his autobiography that one of the key moral dilemmas of his life was whether to return to his homeland in 1948 when Israel declared its statehood. He chose to remain in London.

“A few of my contemporaries regarded what I did as a character flaw, if not a downright act of desertion,” he wrote. “In me, there remains a small, still voice that asks whether I can ever fully acquit myself in my own mind.” He was among the guests in 1993 when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat sealed their historic peace agreement with a handshake on the White House lawn. He served as a delegate to the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago and was on the board of Amnesty International.


Theodore Meir Bikel, actor, singer and activist: born Vienna 2 May 1924; married 1942 Ofra Ichilov (divorced 1943), 1967 Rita Weinberg (divorced 2008; two children), 2008 Tamara Brooks (divorced 2012), 2013 Aimee Ginsburg; died Los Angeles 21 July 2015.