Over the course of a long and distinguished career on stage and the silver screen, Israeli actor Chaim Topol, who has passed away at the age of 87, was famous for a host of iconic performances. He was dr. Hans Zarkov in Mike Hodges’ frenzied camp space opera Flash Gordon – his character was even referenced in the Queen single that accompanied the film – and played 007’s scheming ally Milos Columbo in the most brutal entry in the Roger Moore Bond canon, For Your Eyes Only.
Yet inevitably, when his death was announced, every news report and obituary would lead with his most famous role: that of Tevye the Dairyman in Fiddler on the Roof, the part he became synonymous with.
While many other actors took on the character to great acclaim — most recently Andy Nyman, who played Tevye in a 2019 production directed by Trevor Nunn — there’s no question that it was Topol’s signature role, and one he remained proud of. all his life. The role of a downtrodden Ukrainian milkman who holds conservative religious views as well as five wayward daughters – the two often come into conflict – was rich in both comedy and pathos, and a gift for any actor.
In 2015, he told the Times of Israel: “How many people are known in part? How many people in my profession are known worldwide? So I’m not complaining. Sometimes I’m surprised when I come to China or when I come to Tokyo or when I come to France or wherever I come and the clerk at the immigration office says, “Topol, Topol, are you Topol?” So yes, a lot of people saw it [Fiddler] and that’s not a bad thing.”
He first played the role of Tevye in 1966 in his Israeli debut production, after actor Zero Mostel created the role on his Broadway debut in 1964. Topol—usually known only by his last name throughout his career—was by no means a well-known name at the time, in contrast to the exuberant Mostel.
He had started acting in the 1950s, performing with a kibbutz theater company and, in his words, singing and acting “loud”. His charismatic and outgoing performances brought him to the attention first of Israeli theater producers and then filmmakers, and his breakthrough role in the 1964 film Sallah Shabati, in which the then 29-year-old actor played a beleaguered Jewish patriarch under heavy makeup. -up, led directly to his being cast opposite Kirk Douglas in the biopic of Jewish-American military officer David ‘Mickey’ Marcus, Cast a Giant Shadow.
While his performance as Abou Idn Kader wasn’t pivotal, it still established Topol as a recognizable international name, and so actor Shmuel Rodensky, who played Tevye in Tel Aviv’s stage production of Fiddler on the Roof, fell in ill when he substituted. Topol him for a period of 10 weeks to much acclaim.
When impresario Harold Prince, who had successfully produced the play on Broadway (despite reluctant backers who deemed it “too ethnic”), was looking for an actor for the West End performance in 1967, his first thought was to star of both Sallah Shabati and the Israeli version of Fiddler. However, Topol was unable to speak fluent English and, at age 30, apparently too young for the role as written. (Mostel was 49 when he played Tevye.)
He learned the role by consistently listening to the Broadway cast’s recording and rehearsing the lyrics with a British friend, but relied on his versatility to play the role, saying, “A good actor can play an old man , a sad face, a happy man. Make-up is not an obstacle.”
Topol was amused when he discovered that the British producers could not pronounce his first name, and so dubbed him ‘Shame’. The production was overseen by Broadway director Jerome Robbins, who directed the first staging, and now revisited the play to make it more naturalistic and less caricatured; it turned out to be a notable hit, and even the fact that Topol was recalled to Israel to serve as a reserve in the 1967 Six-Day War—where he entertained the troops rather than fought—couldn’t derail his newfound success.
He would eventually reprise the part on stage four times; on Broadway in 1990 and in the West End in 1967, 1983 and 1994. In the latter production, Topol, now 61 years old, no longer needed the heavy make-up he had needed as a younger man to age convincingly and joyfully reprized Tevye to critical acclaim and sold-out audiences.
Much of the continued affection for Topol and for Fiddler lay with Norman Jewison’s 1971 film adaptation of the musical. Jewison was an unorthodox choice for director, given that his metier consisted of slick, stylish crime dramas like the Sidney Poitier vehicle In The Heat of the Night and the Steve McQueen-Faye Dunaway caper The Thomas Crown Affair. Nor, despite his name, was he himself Jewish; his family were English Protestants who had settled in America several generations earlier. When given the chance to direct by the head of the studio, his first reaction was, “But I’m an asshole!”
However, this sense of dissociation made him well suited to the material, as Fiddler is all about displacement and saying goodbye to your homeland: a resonance, given the current situation in Ukraine, that makes it all the more timely and poignant. Today.
Despite its reputation as a joyous, kneeling musical, with its best-known numbers including Tevye’s solo If I Were A Rich Man and the ensemble number Sunrise, Sunset, it has a dark, at times almost tragic core that Jewison was totally attuned to. . He vetoed Mostel’s casting as “too stagey, too Brooklyn, too American”, insisting on the more authentic Topol, which he considered more naturalistic, even if he too had to tone down his lavish stage antics for the screen . Aging him turned out to be no problem; as the actor later said: “As a young man, I had to make sure I didn’t break the illusion in front of the audience. You must tame yourself. I am now someone who is supposed to be 50, 60 years old. I can’t jump. I can’t suddenly be young. You produce a certain [vocal] sound that is not young.”
A budget of $9 million was agreed upon – fairly low for a musical (the recent Funny Girl had cost $14 million), but reflective of the absence of major stars and a three-hour run. The film was shot on location in Yugoslavia, mimicking turn-of-the-century Russian shtetls that the story played out and that Jewison insisted on authenticity at all times, even when the interior shots were filmed at Pinewood Studios. Extras were flown in that could speak the authentic Eastern European languages of the setting and even geese and pigs were imported to make the whole thing feel naturalistic, rather than Oliver’s studio-bound antics!
He succeeded admirably. When released in late 1971, the film was a critical and commercial hit, winning Topol the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy; he was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to Gene Hackman in The French Connection.
And since then it has become not only a mainstay of musical cinema, but also a testament to the humanity of its star, anchoring the image with both heart and wit. It may have been the part he was associated with for the rest of his life, but it’s impossible to hear If I Were a Rich Man without thinking of Topol, and the sure knowledge that this iconic performance was one of the most joyful ever. every actor gave in 20th century cinema.