One more fiddle for the road

At 77, Chaim Topol is considering a return to the stage as Tevye the Dariyman.

Chaim Topol 521 (photo credit: Flash90)
Chaim Topol 521
(photo credit: Flash90)
Chaim Topol, Israel’s most successful global entertainer, has played the iconic role of Tevye the Dairyman, in “Fiddler on the Roof” some 3,500 times. Today, at the age of 77, a full 15 years older than the fictitious Tevye, Topol is seriously considering an offer to revive the Sholem Aleichem character on stage once again – all the more remarkable in light of the fact that the Tel Aviv-born actor first played the role in a Hebrew-language production when he was 30.
During the 1960s, 70s and 80s, as a star on the stage in London and New York, and a film star in Hollywood, Topol was the only Israeli to become an internationally recognized entertainer.
Today, Topol greets visitors in the same home – originally two stories and now four – in the heart of Tel Aviv that his wife Galia’s family began building in 1928. He stands upright, wearing an open-necked white shirt and slacks, and displaying the mischievous look he employed so skillfully as Tevye.
His posture is surprising given how one is so used to seeing him slumped over as the dairyman or Sallah Shabati, the movie portrayal of whom in 1964 earned him a Golden Globe award.
Topol sketches and sculpts in his “spare time,” and lying on the living room floor is his depiction of Menashe Kadishman that he plans to present to the Israeli sculptor. His sketches of Yitzhak Rabin, Yitzhak Shamir and Chaim Weizmann appear on the Internet.
In his youth, Topol dreamed of becoming a commercial artist.
Looking back to his childhood, Topol notes that his elementary school teachers saw an artistic spark in him, and pushed him to perform in school plays and to read stories to the class.
Topol left school at 14 and found work as a printer, working on the machines at the now defunct Davar newspaper, and continuing his high school studies at night. “I loved printing,” he tells The Jerusalem Report. “I loved machinery.”
After graduating from high school a year too young for the army, Topol joined Kibbutz Geva in the Jezreel Valley. Following his enlistment into the Israel Defense Forces, Topol served in the Nahal entertainment troupe. As a member of the highly popular troupe, which included a number of young composers and writers who went on to become leaders of popular culture, Topol sang, acted, traveled around the country and met the woman he would later marry, another troupe member, Galia Finkelstein.
Topol was eventually named troupe commander, and his popularity skyrocketed – so much so that when it came time for him to end his obligatory two and a half years of service, then Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan insisted he stay on for another six months. Topol was flattered.
After finally completing his military service on October 2, 1956, all Topol wanted to do was to return to the kibbutz and establish a printing business. But on October 25, just two days after marrying Galia, he was mobilized again, for the Sinai Campaign, and spent his honeymoon entertaining troops across the desert. Following the war, he and Galia moved to Kibbutz Mishmar David in central Israel, where Topol worked in the garage and his new bride worked in the kitchen and raised three children, Omer, Adi and Anat.
Gathering his friends from the Nahal troupe, Topol suggested they set up a kibbutz theater group that would travel around the country for four days and do kibbutz work for two, with one day off a week. Bolstered by some of the nation’s best composers, the revived troupe, which performed from early 1957 to the mid-1960s, was a huge hit, because, as Topol notes, “all the men between ages 18 and 50 knew us – because they had been in the reserves.”
Topol sang and acted – and loudly too. “So loud,” quips Galia, also a singer in the kibbutz group, “that you couldn’t hear the rest of us.” “So we weren’t good actors, but we were loud actors and singers,” Topol responds defensively.
A fatal car accident, which took the life of Eliahu Barkai, one of the troupe members in the mid-1960s, drained Topol and the others of their desire to perform – and the group disbanded soon thereafter.
From 1960 to 1964, Topol was part of the Batzal Yarok (Green Onion) theater group, which performed satirical reviews. During that same period, he acted in his first film, “I like Mike,” in 1961, and went on to feature in 25 in all. After Batzal Yarok, he “became something of a serious actor,” he says, joining the Haifa Theater and performing Shakespeare, Ionesco, and Brecht. The Haifa Theater competed favorably with the more famous Tel Aviv theaters, and people would bus in from the big city to see Topol perform.
Topol played Benny Sherman in the 1962 film, “Eldorado”; and then, in 1963, he was asked to take on the character of Sallah Shabati, a role that proved to be his big movie breakthrough, in Ephraim Kishon’s social satire about the difficulties faced by a Mizrahi Jewish immigrant. Topol, at the age of 28, played Shabati, a character in his 50s. Having played the role in sketches with the Nahal troupe, Topol notes that the experience had given him time to rehearse and develop the character, a rare advantage for movie actors.
Topol was already quite familiar with the character, but to research the role even further, he visited the immigrant transit camp in Ramat Hasharon, near Tel Aviv, where he and scriptwriter Kishon shaped Shabati, “a 50-year-old rogue,” as Topol describes him.
It was Topol’s idea not to play Shabati as a Yemenite, Iraqi or Moroccan specifically, though the character was clearly Sephardi. “I tried to find a language and behavior that for Iraqis, he was an Iraqi, for Yemenites, he was a Yemenite. I wanted him to be a hero for all of them,” he says.
Kishon wanted to name the character Saadia, but Topol felt the name was “too Yemenite” and suggested Sallah, a name popular in various Middle Eastern countries and also the name of a man he had met in the transit camp in Ramat Hasharon. Topol played Shabati as a serious rather than comic character, but audiences found his portrayal quite humorous, a definite surprise to the actor. He remains in touch today with the “original” Sallah’s children.
“Sallah Shabati” went on, in 1964, to earn Topol the Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year – Actor, while Kishon walked away with the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. It was also nominated for an Oscar that year in the Best Foreign Language Film, eventually losing out to the Italian film, “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.”
When he first came across Sholem Aleichem’s play “Fiddler on the Roof,” Topol was unmoved. Having given in to urgings from colleagues to see the play, with an eye on possibly playing the lead role of Tevye, Topol sat among the New York audience to watch Zero Mostel play the dairyman.
“I really didn’t like it,” Topol recalls, “because Zero, as much as he was a genius, was sometimes unfaithful to the text. He was a crazy guy. The music was lovely,” Topol says. “But I thought, ‘It’s not for me.’” Nevertheless, after watching a Hebrew version of “Fiddler” starring Shmuel Rodensky as Tevye, Topol suddenly realized “what an idiot I was. What a wonderful part this was because Rodensky was very serious and he didn’t play for the comedy – mainly during the second half, which is very serious and broke my heart.”
In later years, he observes, “Tevye is one of the best parts ever written for a male actor-singer.” Often when playing the role, he adds, he felt like his father and grandfather, who seemed like real-life Tevyes. Topol wound up playing Tevye for 10 weeks, substituting for Rodensky who had fallen ill.
And then, in 1966, came an invitation to audition for the English-language “Fiddler” that would play in London. With his 50-word English vocabulary, and with the looks of a 30-year-old – his actual age – Topol was doubtful about securing the role of the 60-orso Tevye. Still, he wanted the London role and spent three days practicing the songs with a teacher.
At the audition, his agent introduced him to the producer, Hal Prince, who had seen “Sallah Shabati” in New York and had asked at the time, “What about this old man with the beard from Tel Aviv? Why don’t we take him for Tevye? Ask him to come.” In London, however, Prince looked at Topol – a beardless 30-year-old with much disappointment, and asked whether he had played the father or the son in “Sallah.” Not at all dismayed by the question, Topol was confident he could pull off the older role. “A good actor,” he says, “can play an old man, a sad face, a happy man. Make up is not an obstacle.”
Belting out one “Fiddler” song after another during the audition, Topol moved about the stage as if he had played the role before – which he had done. The producers were astounded. They knew he had seen the show, but had no idea he had played in it, too.
“After seeing the show four times, you know all the positions and all the gestures?” they asked. He confessed that he had played the part in Israel. Topol won the London role.
Unable to pronounce the Hebrew letter het in Topol’s first name, Chaim, the British producers kept referring to the actor as “Shame.” Would he mind going by his last name only, they asked sheepishly? And from then on, he referred to himself by his last name only, Topol.
In 1971, Topol was cast as Tevye in the film version of “Fiddler,” overcoming tough competition in the form of Rod Steiger, Mostel, Danny Kaye and even Frank Sinatra! Kaye had seen Topol play Tevye in London 25 times and desperately wanted the film role; and Mostel, too, coveted the part. So why was Topol chosen? “Probably because I was cheaper,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.
In 1972, Topol received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role in the film, and captured the Golden Globe award for best actor. Though offers to star in “Fiddler” on the stage came in frequently, Topol did not return to the role of Tevye until 1983. In 1994, playing Tevye again, he shared the stage with his daughter, Adi, who played the role of the dairyman’s daughter, Chava.
Comparing his two most famous acting roles – Sallah Shabati and Tevye the Dairyman – Topol notes that in both cases, he had plenty of time to rehearse the roles. “That was unusual when it comes to films because you rarely get a chance to rehearse over long periods. That’s why Hollywood type-casts actors,” he says.
Faced with the question which of the two roles was easier to play, Topol pauses for a while and replies, “They were both not easy.
As a young man, I had to make sure that I didn’t break the illusion for the audience. You have to tame yourself. I’m now someone who is supposed to be 50, 60 years old. I cannot jump. I cannot suddenly be young. You produce a certain sound [in your voice] that is not young.” In 2008, and approaching the age of 74, Topol again took to the London stage, this time in the role of Honoré, from Maurice Chevalier’s 1958 film, “Gigi.”
When Topol last played Tevye in Boston in 2009, he was forced to withdraw from the show after suffering a shoulder injury. He was replaced by two former Tevyes, Theodore Bikel, 85, and Harvey Fierstein, 57.
So how was playing Tevye at 74 different from his earlier performances in the role? “It was easier,” Topol responds with a smile. “I didn’t have to lock my muscles.
They were already locked. You can allow yourself to go as far as you can and it’s still not over the top.”
Refusing to slow down despite his age, Topol remains attracted to the stage and is currently considering offers to play Tevye in New York and Los Angeles. He also has offers to do two films. He has yet to decide – not on the question of performing again, but whether to do “Fiddler” or a film.
He happily adds that he has never worked so hard in his life, partly due to a new project he has undertaken and that has nothing to do with acting. Last year, he helped open the Jordan River Village. Located near Tiberias, the facility is designed to distract, engage and entertain more than 900 seriously ill children, aged nine to 18, from both religious and secular Jewish and Arab homes.
The government supplied 20 percent of the 100 million shekel (some $25 million) budget for the project, with the remainder coming from private donors, mostly Israelis and some Americans and British. Invited to a cabinet meeting to pitch the idea of the camp in 2005, Topol won approval for the project minutes before then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dissolved the government and formed a new party, Kadima.
Topol and “Fiddler” seem to be linked by some indissoluble bond; and every time he plays Tevye, members of the audience rush to meet him after the show. “Ten percent of the people who were in the audience have been in a production of “Fiddler.” They know the text by heart,” Topol quips.