Photo: Patrick Riviere/Getty Images
The sight of Tevye the milkman shaking his upper body and kicking out his languid, melodic, future subjunctive – ‘If I were a rich man, yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum / All day long I’d biddy biddy bum / If I were a rich man … ” – is one of the most indelible in all of stage and film history. It is forever associated with the irrepressible Israeli actor Chaim Topol, who passed away at the age of 87. He played Tevye in the 1967 London premiere of Fiddler on the Roof and in Norman Jewison’s 1971 film version. Topol won a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination in the role and attended the Oscar ceremony on leave from the Israeli army .
The musical premiered on Broadway in 1964, starring Zero Mostel as Tevye. Fiddler’s book is an adaptation by Joseph Stein of the Sholem Aleichem stories, the insinuating songs written by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock. A source of Yiddish philosophy (“If you spit in the air, it lands in your face”), Tevye spoke directly to God in the Ukrainian village of Anatevka in 1905—where, the theater critic Milton Shulman said, the main production goods were schmaltz and lump in the throat – and represented the resilience of the Jewish people through the ages.
Topol (his name means “tree of life”), with his rich bass voice and direct connection with the audience, was the cherry on top of the strudel. He always put off Mostel’s brilliance as Tevye and was surprised to be cast in the film. But he brought a passion and warmth to his signature role — which he played on stage in more than 3,500 performances, he estimated — that may have eluded the more clownish and harsh Mostel.
Topol returned to London in the role in 1983 and toured the US extensively in the late 1980s, when Rosalind Harris, who played the eldest of his five daughters in the film, played his wife. In 1990, he finally faced Broadway. When he played Tevye again at the London Palladium in 1994, he was only 58. By then, the production and performance – contracted to Boris Aronson’s Chagall-inspired designs and Jerome Robbins’ brilliant but increasingly well-known choreography – were showing signs of cracking. . But Irving Wardle again praised Topol’s Tevye as “a living memorial to the comic genius of a tragic people”.
This version toured in Europe, Japan and Australia. Ten years later, Topol and Fiddler returned to Australia and New Zealand, and a farewell US tour soon followed. He played Tevye for the last time in Boston, Massachusetts, on November 15, 2009.
His background had confirmed the achievement. Born in Tel Aviv, Topol was the son of parents who fled Poland in the 1930s: Jacob, a plasterer who had fought against the British in the Haganah in the War of Independence, and Rel (née Goldman), a seamstress. Like many Israelis of his generation, Topol served in the military during the Sinai campaign, in the 1967 Six-Day War (for that campaign he left the cast of Fiddler at Her Majesty’s Theater in London), and in the 1973 Yom Kippur War .
In the army, Topol, who had two younger sisters, joined an entertainment troupe and then started his own satirical revue company, Batzal Yarok (“The Spring Onion” – “To convey the idea of something fresh, sharp and spicy”, he said. ). One of his fellow comedians was Galia Finkelstein, who shared his background in the labor movement and whom he married at the Mishmar David kibbutz in 1956.
Prior to his army service, Topol was educated and worked as a printer after leaving school at the age of 14. He never considered becoming a professional actor until, after a stint at Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater, he joined Haifa’s New City Theater in 1961. His starring roles there included Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, Azdak in Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Jean in Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, which the playwright hailed as the best-ever production of his absurdist, surrealistic play.
He was already known for the character of Sallah Shabati, an immigrant burdened with problems and children who somehow overcomes all adversity. This trial for Tevye was featured in his army revues and in a 1964 film (his third) that broke all box office records in Israel and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
International stardom followed in Melville Shavelson’s Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), a war drama about Israel’s struggle for independence, starring Kirk Douglas as American-born Colonel David “Mickey” Marcus. Topol played an Arab sheikh, underlining his versatility by playing a Russian deserter posing as a Slavic interpreter in J Lee Thompson’s Before Winter Comes (1969), alongside David Niven, John Hurt and Anthony Quayle.
But when he came to London for Fiddler, he barely spoke a word of English and was taught by Royal Shakespeare Company voice coach Cicely Berry. He later began a happy association with the Chichester Festival theater where he again played Azdak (completely bald) in 1969; the Peter Ustinov role of a matchmaker general in R Loves J, a musical version of Ustinov’s Romanoff and Julia, with songs by Julian More and Alexander Faris, in 1973; and Othello, with Keith Michell as Iago, in 1975, presenting the tragic Moor, he said, as “a man of the desert, an Arab, blackened by the blazing sun”.
An attempt to follow Fiddler’s success with another musical written by Stein, this time featuring songs by Stephen Schwartz, The Baker’s Wife, foundered and never made it to Broadway. And his later film career never eclipsed Fiddler, though he appeared as Brecht’s Galileo in Joseph Losey’s 1974 commemorative record of Charles Laughton’s version for the American Film Theater; as the scientist Dr. Zarkov in Flash Gordon (1980); and as Milos Columbo, a roguish Greek turncoat, in For Your Eyes Only (1981), opposite Roger Moore’s James Bond.
His television work included an incomplete project to film all the books of the Bible; The House on Garibaldi Street (1979), about the capture of Adolf Eichmann, with Martin Balsam and Janet Suzman; and the 1983 miniseries The Winds of War, and its sequel, War and Remembrance, in 1987.
Topol’s last London appearance was in the autumn of 2008, playing the role of Maurice Chevalier of the old roue Honoré in a delightful revival of Gigi by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe at the Open Air Theater in Regent’s Park. As always, he held the audience in the palm of his hand and unloaded his two big numbers – Thank Heavens for Little Girls and I Remember It Well – with a laconic, sideways delivery and a good dose of his signature confidential charm.
His lively autobiography, Topol By Topol, was published in 1981, collecting a wealth of Jewish jokes and wisdom, To Life! (1994), who illustrates both books with his own deft line art.
Although he had a home in London and traveled extensively, Topol spent half of the year at home in Tel Aviv. He helped found the Jordan River Village, a holiday camp in the Lower Galilee for chronically ill children of all ethnic and religious backgrounds, which opened in 2012.
Galia and their children, Omer, Adi and Anat survive him.
• Chaim Topol, actor, born September 9, 1935; died March 8, 2023