Book Review: Unfettered ambition

Upon entering his 10th decade, Theodore Bikel updates his memoirs.

Theodore Bikel admits his guilt over deciding to continue his British career instead of fighting in Israel’s War of Independence. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Theodore Bikel admits his guilt over deciding to continue his British career instead of fighting in Israel’s War of Independence.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In this third, complete edition of his memoirs, Theodore Bikel – a stage, screen and TV actor, multilingual folk singer, human rights activist, former president of American Actors Equity and vice president of the International Federation of Actors, and founder of the Actors Credit Union – tells us all about his 90 years of life and his long career in Britain and the US.
In Theo: An Autobiography, we watch, step after step, his ambitious and unfettered pursuit of success, with top performances – among 2,000 performances total – in films like The Sound of Music, The Defiant Ones, My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof. Bikel also participated in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, in addition to his life-long struggle for actors’ rights and their pensions.
Born on May 2, 1924, in Vienna, Bikel was named Theo after Theodor Herzl, and brought up in a comfortable Zionist family. In 1938, his family was lucky to receive precious immigration certificates, settling in Tel Aviv. Bikel, who remembered the beatings suffered in school under the Nazi regime, was happy to study at the Mikve Israel Agricultural School, later joining kibbutzim – first Masada in the Jordan Valley and later, Kfar Maccabiah.
Gifted with a perfect ear, a good singer and natural-born entertainer, Bikel was chosen to attend a seminar in Tel Aviv where he received instruction from playwrights, actors, musicians and various performing arts experts, and where he first tasted the lure and glory of the limelight.
Bikel left the kibbutz and tried his luck as an actor, first at Habimah Theater and later as a founding member of the Chamber Theater. Eventually, supported financially by his parents, he was accepted by the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
As a singer, accompanied by his guitar, he was always welcome and made his name at public festivals. Wealthy Jewish families in the UK were always ready to entertain and help a student from Palestine; a solo performance for the Queen of England was a memorable achievement.
As one of the top academy graduates, he started performing at various theaters.
In 1948, Michael Redgrave recommended Bikel to his friend Laurence Oliver, as a gifted understudy for the part of both Kowalski and Mitch in the West End premiere of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, opposite Vivien Leigh. Bikel’s successful performance established him as an accomplished, versatile British actor.
Bikel writes well, with a great deal of humor and occasional sarcasm. He frankly admits his guilt over deciding to continue his British career instead of fighting in Israel’s War of Independence.
He did, however, always make it his business to assist Israeli actors, contributing to the Jewish state in various ways; indeed, he is chairman of the board of directors of Partners for Progressive Israel.
After eight years in England, Bikel left for the US and fell in love with New York. His versatile British theatrical experience, excellent memory, wit, zest for life and the art of entertaining, multilingual singing and talent in finding important friends from New York, Hollywood and Las Vegas assured his American career. His memories list innumerable well-known names with whom he established rapport, from Max Reinhardt to Leonard Bernstein.
Eventually, Bikel began dividing his time between the lighthearted, gregarious and even frivolous pursuit of an actor/singer, often in ethnic roles in theater, cinema and TV, and at public gatherings and receptions, immersing himself in political and social activities on behalf of the actors, entertainers, rights-seeking African Americans and Russian dissidents. His policy, “Come, let us reason together,” won him an executive post in Actors Equity and later its presidency, as well as the vice presidency of the International Actors Union.
Successful in these actor trade union activities, and a participant in the African Americans’ march for freedom, he was later disappointed when some of these same African Americans – who enjoyed his and other Jews’ support – shared anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiments.
Bikel married four times and had two sons, but we don’t learn much about them. We do learn that he was awarded numerous prizes, including two Tony Award nominations, a lifetime achievement award from the National Federation of Jewish Culture and the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art First Class.
His memories may be of considerable interest to readers keen to learn about behind-the-stage developments in the worlds of folk music, theater, cinema and TV. To Israel’s leaders, Bikel was one of those innumerable former Israelis who made their homes and careers abroad, but remained good and proud Jews nonetheless.