Versatile actor Bikel dies

Actor Theodore Bikel sang in 21 languages.
Actor Theodore Bikel sang in 21 languages.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • Theodore Bikel, the actor who sang in 21 languages from mediaeval Spanish to Zulu and who toured for decades as Tevye the Jewish milkman in the Broadway hit musical Fiddler On The Roof, died on Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 91.

He died of natural causes at the UCLA Medical Centre, his publicist said.

The actor was born in Vienna and lived for years in England and British-administered Palestine.

He was comfortable playing characters of almost any nationality, whether it was a comic buffoon or a scoundrel.

To many, he was simply and enduringly Tevye, the 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.

On television, he 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.

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 Oscar 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).

Theodor Meir Bikel was born in Vienna on May 2, 1924. He later said he had been named after Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, who was born on the same day 64 years earlier.

When he was 13, two years before the Nazis marched into Poland, his family moved to Palestine. He apprenticed at the Habimah theatre in Tel Aviv in 1943. Three years later, he left to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

After graduating with honours in 1948, he was discovered by Laurence Olivier, who cast him in a small role in the London production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Bikel made his Broadway debut in 1955, in Tonight In Samarkand. He became a United States citizen in 1961.

One of his 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 three years earlier played the part of a hijacked passenger in the television film Victory At Entebbe, rallied his fellow hostages with songs. The plane landed safely in New York.

His fourth wife, journalist Aimee Ginsburg, survives him, as do two sons, two stepsons and three grandchildren.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 23, 2015, with the headline 'Obituary Versatile actor Bikel dies'. Print Edition | Subscribe