A well-constructed character

Chaim Topol is best known for 'Fiddler on the Roof,' but now he's trying to direct attention to the sick kids at the Jordan River Village.

Haim Topol 88 248 (photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Haim Topol 88 248
(photo credit: Joan Marcus)
After Israeli actor Chhaiaim Topol had starred as the immortal Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof 2,500 times, he stopped counting. "Maybe 2,700 times is about right," he said in a phone call from Chicago, and he is upping the count every night during his current 20-city, seven-month road tour of the United States. The indestructible show will reach Los Angeles on July 21 and Portland, Oregon, its final stop, on August 25. After all these nights and years on the world's stages, how does the 73-year-old actor keep each performance fresh and challenging? "That's the job of an actor," he replied. "Whether I play the same role 40, 1,000 or 2,500 times, I have to convince you that the line or song just jumped into my mind at this very moment. "Of course, in different periods of my life, I look at the part in different ways. When I first had Tevye ask his wife Golde, after 25 years of marriage, 'Do you love me?' I myself had been married for 10 years, and I thought, '25 years of marriage, that's a very long time.' "Now we've been married for 52 years and I think, 'what's 25 years? We were children then.'" Topol recalls another example. "When Tevye's daughter marries and he has to give her away to a stranger, the first time I did this, I had an eight-year-old daughter and had to imagine an experience that was far in the future. "Now my lovely little daughter is 51 years old, she's been married 25 years, and I know exactly how I felt when she was under the huppa; I don't have to imagine it." Besides his 2,700 stage appearances, uncounted viewers in just about every country in the world have seen Topol in the 1971 film version, for which he won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar. It can be argued that Tevye is the best-known Jew in the world (perhaps in a tie with the late Albert Einstein), and that Topol is the world's foremost expert on the character of Tevye. What then, he was asked, accounts for Tevye's universal appeal in places whose inhabitants have never heard of a shtetl, let alone Anatevka? "Tevye is made of the genes of my grandfather and of my grandfather's grandfather," he responded. "Many times, when Tevye talks, I think, 'That's what my grandfather would have said.' Furthermore, Tevye is a well-constructed character. I've seen him performed in high schools, or by amateur groups, and he always comes across. I'm not being modest, but you have to be a real schlemiel to ruin that part." But perhaps the real key to Tevye's universal appeal is that in most countries, people do not see Tevye as a Jew. "I've played Tevye in Japan, in English, and the Japanese come up to me afterwards and tell me that Tevye reminds them of their uncle or grandfather. Middle-aged men say the play reminds them of arguments with their daughters or with a difficult neighbor," Topol recalled. "To a Croatian audience, the anti-Semitic Cossacks become Serbs and to a Greek audience they are Turks, and so on." For some people, the impact of Tevye is even deeper and more personal. "I've had people come up to me and tell me that after seeing the show, they've converted to Judaism, and some non-practicing Jews who said that they have returned to the fold." CHAIM TOPOL, a Tel Aviv native, got his first taste of the limelight during his military service in an army theater group, where, among other parts, the 19-year-old played the title role in Othello. He has frequently returned to his Shakespearean beginnings, playing in the Hebrew versions of King Lear and The Taming of the Shrew, and again in Othello, this time in English in front of British audiences. After his army service, he founded a satirical theater group, called The Spring Onions, and later the Haifa Municipal Theatre, where he portrayed Azdak in Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Jean in Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros. His film resume lists 30 American and Israeli titles, starting with Sallah Shabati, whose success led to an invitation in 1967 to open Fiddler in London's West End, which, in turn, got him the lead in Norman Jewison's film version of the musical. Asked to look back on his impressive career, Topol ruminates a few second and says, "I've been very lucky, but I'm also a hard worker. I can stand on the stage eight times a week and carry a difficult part," quickly adding, "Poo, poo, poo, kineahora," the magical incantation to ward off the Evil Eye. What Topol really wants to talk about is the Jordan River Village (www.jordanrivervillage.org), located in the Lower Galilee, between Haifa and Tiberias, and scheduled to open next year. The Village will provide free services for youngsters, eight to 19 years old, with such chronic or life-threatening diseases as cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, neurological disorders and rheumatic and heart diseases. Topol, who serves as the project's chairman of the board, said he was inspired and mentored by the late Paul Newman, who six years ago took the Israeli actor on a tour of his Hole in the Wall camps for severely ill children. The Village will annually accommodate some 4,500 children of all faiths and nationalities, including, Topol hopes, kids from Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. The Israeli government provides 20 percent of the village's budget. The current Fiddler is billed as Topol's "North American Farewell Tour," but the actor begs to differ. "I'm now on my second or third 'farewell tour'," he notes. "I hope when I'm 80, I'll be back."