The king of impersonators

Acclaimed actor Tuvia Tsafir returns to his roots in his role as Kalimutka in Yiddishpiel Theater’s hit Yidl Mitn Fidl.

Tuvia Tsafir: ‘I don’t want to play any sad roles. Life is sad enough in reality.’ (photo credit: YOSSI TZVAKER)
Tuvia Tsafir: ‘I don’t want to play any sad roles. Life is sad enough in reality.’
(photo credit: YOSSI TZVAKER)
S ometimes, something that seems like a disaster actually turns out to be a blessing in disguise.
If you don’t believe me, just ask Tuvia Tsafir. When he was just starting out as an actor, he showed up for rehearsals for the show Shiduchim, at the Cameri T h e a t e r .
This was the first time he was involved in the repertory theater.
The director, Michael Alfreds, noticed how nervous Tsafir was so he sent him home. He was devastated. As he walked towards his dad’s shop, he felt like his entire world had fallen apart.
On his way there, he bumped into the late actor Itzko Rachamimov.
“What happened?” Rachamimov asked when he saw Tsafir’s long face. When he heard that he had been dropped from the show, he slapped him in the face to wake him up and ordered him to show up the next morning at a small hall on Yarkon Street for rehearsals for a show called Ketchup by Hanoch Levin.
“I’ve been lucky like this my entire life,” Tsafir says. “One thing led to another and I ended up playing in Nikui Rosh – and the rest is history. I’m not sure I would have gotten this role had I been accepted in Shiduchim.”
Tsafir has been acting ever since his appearance in Ketchup, and these days he is busy with his role in Yiddish theater, which reminds him of hanging around his parents’ shop in the Florentin neighborhood of south Tel Aviv. In the Yiddishpiel Theater, he is playing in a piece called Yidl Mitn Fidl (Yiddle With His Fiddle).
“As the child of aging parents, I never really learned to speak Yiddish. But whatever I did manage to pick up is coming out now,” he says.
His parents had made aliya from Poland in the 1930s.
But don’t be misled – acting in Yiddish theater had never been Tsafir’s dream.
“I always kept my distance,” he says.
Sassi Keshet, the CEO and artistic director of Yiddishpiel and his colleague from their days together in the IDF Nahal troupe, tried more than once to convince him to join. Tsafir sent his manager (his wife Yael) to the first meeting with Eleanor Reissa, who came from New York to direct the play. When Yael came home excited about the opportunity, he finally acquiesced.
“I realized that it was time for me to honor my parents, who are up there now,” Tsafir said as he looked toward the sky. “I mean Golda, my mother, was categorically opposed to me becoming an actor. Even after I had a bit of a success, she would not come around. ‘This is all luftgesheftim – work in the air’ she claimed. She would say that acting was not a career.
‘Tuvia’le,’ she would say, ‘don’t spend your time with this nonsense. You’ll never earn a penny doing this.’” The play is a dramatized story of a group of street musicians. Tsafir plays the role of Kalimutka, a clarinet player who is the group’s leader.
“Despite the fact that these characters are meant to be very poor people who live from hand to mouth, Kalimutka is an optimistic character who is full of life,” he says.
The turning point in his career came in the 1990s, when he was given the role of Baloo in The Jungle Book.
He recalls that they had hesitated before contacting him, since he was a popular TV actor by then.
“When they offered me the position, I didn’t have to think twice,” he says. “It fit me like a glove – a bear that’s always getting into mischief and singing songs, is childish, and loves to eat (like I do). In short, this was the role I’d been waiting for my whole life.”
If you had been told when you were young that you’d be a kids’ TV star, would you have believed it? No way. And if 40 years ago they had told me that I would live to be 70 and that I would be physically fit, I also wouldn’t have believed it. The child inside me has never disappeared.
Did you begin getting into shape after you had the two cardiac arrests? Ever since my cardiac arrests, I’ve been taking my medicine regularly and going for checkups. I swore that I’d do everything so that it wouldn’t happen again. Now that I’m 68, I feel like I’ve been given a bonus. So I don’t want to play any sad roles. Life is sad enough in reality.
TSAFIR IS the type of entertainer who can be very serious in real life. He says that he inherited his gift for doing impersonations from his father, Moshe, who used to make all of the customers at his shop laugh.
“My mother wanted me to be an engineer or a doctor or a psychologist, but instead she got an artist who loved acting in school shows,” Tsafir recalls. “My parents were busy in their store and so I would watch movie after movie, dreaming all the while of becoming another Marlon Brando or Paul Newman.”
When he was in elementary school, he moved with his family to the Bavli neighborhood in Tel Aviv – but years before it was considered a hip place to live. He felt a bit like Tom Sawyer in the days he spent at the Yarkon River.
But mostly he loved Yael. They met in the sixth grade and they started dating in high school.
“We were only 20 when we got married,” Tsafir says. “My mother told me, ‘Listen to me good: So long as you’re laying eggs, she’ll keep you. If you stop laying eggs, she’ll take you to the market and have your head chopped off.’ That was her style of humor.”
“I didn’t even know that I had a talent for doing imitations,” he quips.
“It all began one day when one of the Nikui Rosh actors failed to show up for a filming session. Moti Kirschenbaum, the director, asked me to take his place and do a monologue as Menachem Begin. He wanted Begin, so I gave him Begin. All of a sudden I saw that everyone around me was staring at me with their mouths hanging open. ‘What? Was it that bad?’ I asked, and the rest is history. By the way, I shaved off my mustache for the filming of that sketch and I wear glasses anyway. Many people asked if it had really been Begin or if we had used his real voice.”
Who have you tried to imitate, but never succeeded? When I was working on Nikui Rosh, I tried to imitate cousins [president] Ezer Weizman and [defense minister] Moshe Dayan, but I couldn’t. Only years later did I succeed. Moti would say that I could turn into any form that I wanted to and could mimic everyone.
Have your impersonations ever been the subject of anyone’s ire? Politicians love being imitated or having a caricature about them made, but if you go too far, they get mad.
Among all the people I’ve imitated, [prime minister Ariel] “Arik” Sharon was the one I liked the most and who accepted my work with a smile, which is pretty rare. He even invited me once to come visit him on his ranch, but I declined. I knew that I might fall in love with him as a real person, and then I wouldn’t be able to imitate him properly anymore. I was very careful to avoid forming any personal relationships with the people I impersonated, so that I could remain objective.
What about former president Shimon Peres? The president once said something quite astute about me: “Granted, he does mock me sometimes, but his heart is in the right place.”
And this was an accurate observation.
Even if sometimes I let the evil inclination stick its head out, I’m not trying to be mean. If I know, for example, that someone I’m planning to impersonate is sitting in the audience watching me, I censor myself. It’s kind of like walking on a tightrope.
If you can stay up on the rope, then you’ve succeeded. It’s very easy to be sucked down and use bad taste.
I heard that once you really did walk across a tightrope.
That’s right. It was during the 50th Independence Day celebrations.
There was a sketch about someone who tries not to be extreme in anything.
I was really drawn to this character since it expresses what the silent majority here thinks. When they told me I’d have to do the sketch while walking on a tightrope, I didn’t hesitate for a second. I love taking on challenges. So they brought me to a place where I could practice walking on a rope that was two meters above the ground, and I thought I was going to die of fright. I fell down as soon as I got up and there was no net below me. But I insisted on trying again, and when I made it safely to the other side, I knew I’d be able to succeed walking on the tightrope in the ceremony too.
Did anyone copy your imitations? Yeah, people copied my “Ah-ah” I did as Arik Sharon. That’s okay, what can I do? We’re all human. Some people are not as strong.
What was the best imitation you’ve ever done? I’d have to say the one where I impersonated Shimon Peres and [prime minister] Yitzhak Shamir while doing a tap dance to “Singing in the Rain.”
I also spoke about my admiration for Gene Kelly who I believe is an absolute genius.
JUST AS Tsafir’s mother asked him not to become an actor, so too did he tell his son, Yoav, not to be just an actor.
Yoav apparently took his father’s advice since he is a successful director of the American TV series Rising Star, in which he was involved from the outset.
“In my opinion, Yoav made the right decision when he chose to go into production instead of acting,” Tsafir says. “That’s what gets you far. I guess he switched directions in order not to compete with me. He’s one of the top producers.”
Looking back, he knows that everything could have turned out differently.
Before he became Israel’s top impersonator, he studied psychology at Tel Aviv University. All he needed to receive his degree was to write two papers.
“It was an amazing experience. It really shaped me as a person,” he says.
“I studied physiological psychology with Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz. He was the greatest teacher I ever had.
It was worth it to study there just to have been able to study with him. I learned how to act from him too. He was an incredible actor.”
Since you knew him well, what’s your opinion of how he is impersonated on Eretz Nehederet? It’s excellent! Eran Zarachovitch is definitely my cup of tea. I think he’s great. I give him and Asi Cohen the highest scores of all the Eretz Nehederet cast.
Did you ever want to join the Eretz Nehederet team? I did in the past. Someone made an introduction for me and I know that the chief editor, Molly Segev, saw the sketch I prepared, but nothing came of it. I know he had his reasons for thinking that we weren’t a good match, and I accepted that.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.