Friday, August 14, 2015

Theodore Bikel: A Mensch for All Seasons

Was there anything Theodore Bikel couldn’t do?  In the course of a long career that ended with his death last month at age 91, Bikel showed the world that he could act up a storm, sing like a bird, and serve as an outspoken champion of human rights. He had stamina too. A friend of mine, a personal trainer, worked with Bikel for 13 years. Though fighting off several forms of cancer, including leukemia, he exercised three times a week until recently. Even when his body was finally letting go, his mind remained sharp until the end.

Bikel was by no means shy about his gifts. A strong sense of self was important for one forced to leave his beloved Vienna at the age of fourteen, one step ahead of the Nazis. His family, active in Zionist circles, relocated to pre-statehood Israel, where he first discovered acting. Soon after, he switched from Hebrew to English, playing the all-American sad sack, Mitch, opposite Vivien Leigh’s Blanche DuBois, in the London premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Laurence Olivier.

Bikel’s facility for languages and accents came in handy when he landed in Hollywood. One of his early roles was that of a Dutch doctor living in Nova Scotia in a charming family film my parents adored, The Little Kidnappers (1953). Naturally he played German-speakers, as in The African Queen (1951), but he also gravitated toward Slavic parts, like the submarine commander in one of my own favorites, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966). In its recent obit, the New York Times enumerated some of his many linguistic incarnations: “On television Mr. 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 A. Kissinger.”

His most honored role, though, came courtesy of Stanley Kramer’s love for unlikely casting. In Kramer’s landmark 1958 film, The Defiant Ones, Bikel was a Southern sheriff leading a posse to re-capture the escaped cons played by Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. It’s a surprisingly sympathetic part: this particular Southern sheriff is at base a humane man. The character reflects Bikel’s own strong social convictions, but as a born-and-bred Southerner he’s hard to buy. Still, audiences responded to Bikel’s portrayal, and he was rewarded with an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor.

Personally, I’d rather remember him as the larcenous linguist Zoltan Kaparthy in the film version of My Fair Lady. Or as an exemplary Teyve in Fiddler on the Roof, a part he played on stage more than 2000 times.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Bikel was also known the world over as a folk singer, one who accompanied himself on a host of instruments, including guitar, mandolin, balalaika, and harmonica. With Pete Seeger and others, he helped found the famous Newport Folk Festival in 1959. On Broadway, he created the role of Captain von Trapp to Mary Martin’s Maria in The Sound of Music. It’s said that Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers wrote “Edelweiss” especially for him. The tune’s sweet simplicity and Bikel’s mellow voice: what a perfect blending of singer and song! It well befits a man who lost his homeland, then gained the whole world.

As Capt. von Trapp on Broadway


  1. I always enjoyed his work - and he was everywhere, working all the time. He really was marvelous as the recurring character on Star Trek: The Next Generation among many of my favorites. I did not know until watching the special DVD features a few years ago that Mr. Bikel was the second strongest contender for the role of Auric Goldfinger in the James Bond movie - a role that went to Gert Frobe (with a dubbed voice). But watching Mr. Bikel's screen test on the disc shows he would have been a fine choice too - and wouldn't have needed the other actor's vocal assist. RIP Theodore Bikel.

  2. Yes, indeed. I've spoken to my personal trainer friend, and he tells me that one reason Bikel worked so hard at his physical training was that he was determined to keep on playing Teyve the Dairyman, eight performances a week, long past his 80th birthday. And so he did!