NEW YORK (AP) – Theodore Bikel, the Tony- and Oscar-nominated actor and singer whose passions included folk music and political activism, died Tuesday morning of natural causes at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 91.
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 Henry Kissinger.
“No one loved theater more, his union better, or cherished actors like Theo did. He has left an indelible mark on generations of members past and generations of members to come,” Actors’ Equity Association, which Bikel led as president from 1973-1982, said in a statement.
He also appeared on numerous television shows, recorded books on tape, appeared in opera productions and issued dozens of contemporary and folk music albums. He sang in 21 languages, and especially loved the Yiddish language repertoire.
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. The following year, Bikel starred on Broadway as Capt. Georg von Trapp in the original production of The Sound of Music, playing opposite Mary Martin’s Maria, which earned him a second Tony nomination.
Many theatergoers knew him best for his portrayal of Tevye in stage productions of Fiddler on the Roof. Although he did not 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 Yiddish writer and playwright Sholem Aleichem, author of the stories from which Fiddler was adapted.
Among his film roles, he played the grumpy Soviet submarine captain in the Oscar-nominated 1966 comedy The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. He played Kissinger in the TV movie 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 notable musicians. He recorded 37 albums and sang with Pete Seeger and The Weavers.
Bikel did not consider his activism at odds with his work as a performer. In fact, 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 as 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.
Bikel started acting in Tel Aviv’s Habimah Theatre in 1943, then moved in 1946 to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Within a few years, he won a role in the London production of Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire with Vivien Leigh, playing Mitch, Stanley Kowalski’s friend. It was the first of several high-profile collaborations between Bikel and scores of noteworthy performers in Europe and North America.
He made his Broadway debut in 1955 in Tonight in Samarkand and in 1958 was nominated for a Tony for The Rope Dancers.
Bikel, who became an American citizen in 1961, said in his autobiography, Theo: The Autobiography of Theodore Bikel, that one of the key moral dilemmas of his life was whether to return to his Israel in 1948 when it 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.
Bikel traveled to Mississippi in 1963 to sing at voter registration rallies, accompanied by Bob Dylan, who did not know at the time that Bikel had paid for his plane ticket.
Serving as a delegate to the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago, Bikel took part in anti-war demonstrations both inside the convention and out on the street. He was a board member of Amnesty International and a member of the National Council on the Arts.
Honored by the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring for his support of Yiddish culture around the world, he received a plaque at a ceremony in Los Angeles, where he had established his primary residence. The much-honored activist quipped, “I have a whole room full of these at home. I call it ‘Plaquistan.'”
Five years ago Bikel signed a letter of support for Israeli artists who refuse to perform in the Jewish settlement of Ariel on the West Bank, and cited his conscience. “Anyone who has strong feelings for Israel like I do, and that believes it is an absolute necessity to strive for peace, understands that the single most obvious obstacle are the settlements,” Bikel said. “I understand that art and politics should not mingle, but art also has to be part of the world,” he added.
He also was featured in a widely circulated Internet promo for a negotiated peace agreement, comparing the experience of the Jews being driven from their homes by the Tsarist government of Russia and the Palestinians forced from their lands during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence.
In a statement issued by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka on the passing of Bikel, who was a former AFL-CIO Executive Council Board Member, the labor leader said, “Theo’s passion on-stage was matched only by his passion for working people behind the scenes. His legacy will be felt by those who watched him on stage and screen, and by the countless actors he gave a voice to through his work in the labor movement. His decades of service to his craft and his fellow actors will never be forgotten, and will serve to pave the way to a better life for the next generation of actors.”
Bikel is survived by his wife, Aimee Ginsburg-Bikel; sons Rob and Danny Bikel; stepsons Zeev and Noam Ginsburg; and three grandchildren.
Eric A. Gordon contributed to this story from Los Angeles.
Video: A 55-minute video of an appearance by Theodore Bikel was filmed in New York City just days before his death. It features a series of interviews with Jewish theater personalities, and Bikel winds up the program singing what turns out to be his farewell performance of the song “Zayt gezunt” (Be well). Click here.