Yes, it’s not every performer who could list appearing with both Bogart and Hepburn and The Mothers of Invention on their resumé, but veteran character actor Theodore Bikel, who passed away earlier this week at 91, was not your average performer. Along with being an Academy Award and Tony nominee for his work on the screen and the Broadway stage, he also made a name for himself with dozens of TV guest shots, and his talent as a singer of folk and traditional Jewish songs inspired Rodgers and Hammerstein to write a song in The Sound of Music for him (more on that below).
The son of immigrant Jewish parents, Theodore Meir Bikel was born in Vienna, Austria in May of 1924. Moving with his family to British-controlled Palestine following the German annexation of Austria in 1938, Bikel lived on a kibbutz and studied farming. Acting won out over agriculture as a career choice, and he worked with Hebrew-language theater companies in Tel Aviv (his first role was in a staging of Tevye, The Milkman, one of the inspirations for Fiddler on the Roof). Following the end of World War II Bikel went to London and studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Among his British stage roles was a performance as Mitch alongside Vivien Leigh in the West End run of A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Laurence Olivier.
His screen debut came in an uncredited role in a 1951 British picture, Island Rescue, but later that year director John Huston, who had seen Bikel on the stage, cast him as a WWI German naval officer in the adventure classic The African Queen. “All my scenes were filmed in a London studio backlot, shooting during the day and appearing in a play at night,” he later recalled, also recounting how he would play chess on the set with star Humphrey Bogart between takes. Small roles in such films as 1952’s Moulin Rouge (as Serbia’s King Milo IV) and the Clark Gable dramas Never Let Me Go (1953) and Betrayed (1954) followed, along with 1955 turns in two fact-based WWII pictures: as a German officer in the nautical actioner Above Us the Waves and a Dutch POW in the escape thriller The Colditz Story.
The dual lures of Hollywood and Broadway brought Bikel to the U.S. in 1954 (he became a naturalized citizen seven years later), and within the first couple of years the multi-faceted performer had made his Broadway debut in Tonight in Samarkand; appeared in such TV shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Playhouse 90 and Studio One; played a cruel Napoleonic French general in The Pride and the Passion, with Cary Grant, Sophia Loren and Frank Sinatra, and a German U-Boat officer in The Enemy Below, with Robert Mitchum and Curt Jurgens; and recorded his first album of folk melodies.
1958 saw Theodore garner a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of the Southern sheriff tracking down escaped prisoners Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in director Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones. That same year he also played a psychologist in the Susan Hayward drama I Want to Live and was a cemetery caretaker in the bizarre shocker I Bury the Living, with Richard Boone. In 1959 he was reunited with Jurgens, playing a theater manager in a remake of The Blue Angel, and had a supporting turn in the family drama A Dog of Flanders, but more importantly he originated the role of Captain von Trapp, alongside Mary Martin, in the original Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. Bikel received his second Tony nomination for the beloved musical (the first came in ’58 for The Rope Dancers), and the song “Edelweiss” was added by the show to make use of his singing voice and guitar playing. Speaking of singing, 1959 was also the first year of the Newport Folk Festival, of which Theodore was one of the founders.
Throughout the 1960s and ’70s Bikel divided his time between stage, screen and television. He took over for Zero Mostel as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway and would over the years play the role more than 2,000 times. When he tried to get the part in the 1971 movie version, however, he simply recalled that “director Norman Jewison thought otherwise” and went with Israeli actor Topol (another notable film role Bikel auditioned for and lost during this time was the title villain in the James Bond thriller Goldfinger).
A Hollywood part which didn’t elude him was that of Zoltan Karpathy, the pompous Hungarian linguistics “expert” and erstwhile student of Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), in 1964’s Best Picture Academy Award winner, My Fair Lady. He could also be seen as one of a group of plane crash survivors stranded in the southern African desert in Sands of the Kalahari (1965); as the captain of a Soviet submarine that accidentally runs aground near a small New England town in the 1966 Cold War comedy The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming; and as the neighbor of terminally ill free spirit Sandy Dennis in the romance Sweet November (1968).
One of Bikel’s more offbeat turns came as the “Master of Ceremonies” in Frank Zappa’s off-the-wall 1970 rock opus 200 Motels (Bikel and Zappa had the the same agent, which explains the casting). Meanwhile, TV viewers could see him guest star in The Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke, Mission: Impossible, Columbo, Charlie’s Angels, All in the Family and many more series. Bikel’s role as an Israeli passenger on a hijacked plane in the 1976 telefilm Victory at Entebbe served him in real life a few years later, when a woman on the cross-country flight he was on threatened to blow up the plane with nitroglycerine. The actor was able to keep his fellow passengers calm–even leading them in song–and the plane eventually landed safely.
In the 1980s and ’90s Bikel had recurring roles in the prime-time soaps Dynasty and Falcon Crest, made several guest turns alongside Angela Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote, and endeared himself to science fiction fans as an interplanetary rabbi on Babylon 5 and as Worf’s human adoptive father on Star Trek: The Next Generation, with small roles in such feature film as See You in the Morning (1989) and Shattered (1991). He continued to perform in stage productions of Fiddler on the Roof into the new century and in 2010 played Tevye’s literary father, author Sholom Aleichem, in an acclaimed off-Broadway production Theodore co-wrote. His final film appearance came in a 2007 Israeli drama, The Little Traitor.
In a New York Times interview several years ago, Bikel said,” Some actors are what they are no matter what name you give them. Clark Gable looked, walked and talked the same in every picture. I like to change shape, accent and gait. That way I never get stale.” And throughout his diverse and lengthy career, Theodore Bikel never did.