Theodore Meir Bikel was an actor, folk singer, musician, composer, and activist. He died on Tuesday at 91.
Bikel, who was born in pre-war Austria and grew up in Israel, made his stage debut in Tevye the Milkman in Tel Aviv, when he was in his teens. He later studied acting at Britain’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and had his London stage debut in 1948 and in New York in 1955. He made his film debut in The African Queen in 1951, and in 1958 he was nominated for an Academy Award for his supporting role in The Defiant Ones. For most of his acting career, he played primarily character parts in American and British films, often portraying foreigners, because of his ability to speak many languages.
He was also a widely recognized recorded folksinger and guitarist. In 1969 he began acting and singing on stage as Tevye in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, a role he performed more often than any other actor to date. The play won nine Tony Awards and was the longest-running musical in Broadway history.
In 1959 he co-founded the Newport Folk Festival. Bikel was president of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America and was president of Actors’ Equity in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He served as the chair of the Board of Directors of Partners for Progressive Israel, where he also lectured. His autobiography, Theo, first published in 1995, has been reprinted and updated three times.
He supported a wide range of progressive and liberal causes, was active in the fight for civil rights in the United States and against apartheid in South Africa. He was active in the fight to free Soviet Jewry, in the progressive Zionist movement, and in the Democratic party. He was a longtime board member of the American Jewish Congress.
Bikel also was a labor activist, serving as president of Actors Equity Association for 11 years and as the longtime president of the AFL-CIO-affiliated Actors & Artistes of Americ
Here are some of the most compelling videos of Bikel from throughout his rich career:
That time he united Ashkenazi and Sephardic musical traditions with some epic duets:
His Israeli Folk Album:
His side of the mountain:
His creative harmonies for the classic ‘Al Kol Eileh’
Recalling life under the Nazis:
His Oif’n Priperchik with English verses:
One of his final appearances, at NYC’s Kulturfest:
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