Theodore Bikel, the multifaceted actor, singer and activist, has given more than 2,000 performances as Tevye, the beleaguered and beloved Russian-Jewish milkman in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Yet that role is just one entry on a vast performing resume, one that includes playing Mitch opposite Vivien Leigh in the London production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” originating the role of Captain Von Trapp opposite Mary Martin in “The Sound of Music” on Broadway, earning an Oscar nomination for his performance as a Southern sheriff in “The Defiant Ones.”
As he prepares to celebrate his 85th birthday in early May, Bikel continues to savor his art and his life. In November, he wed pianist and musical director Tamara Brooks; the following month, he premiered his first solo show, “Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears,” at Theatre J in Washington, D.C.
Reached at his Los Angeles-area home, Bikel - whose career will be celebrated at a Carnegie Hall concert in June - talked about Aleichem, Yiddish, “Fiddler” and his life in the theater.
Q. How and when did you get the idea to create a solo show in which you play Sholom Aleichem?
A. This thing has been germinating in me for the past 15 to 20 years. The only way Sholom Alecheim is known in most of the English-speaking world is through “Fiddler on the Roof.”
When I was a kid, we had 22 volumes of Sholom Aleichem on our shelves at home, all in Yiddish. After my father died, I sent them to the National Yiddish Book Center at Amherst College. But when I began working on this, I needed them, so they sent me the complete works.
Q. Why was it important to bring these characters and stories to life again?
A. In a sense, “Fiddler on the Roof” is what you might call Sholom Alecheim Lite. It’s such a small part of his work, and it was cherry-picked for comedy and music and a couple of tragic elements. There’s much more to Sholom Aleichem “and” to “Fiddler,” such as stories of Tevye’s other daughters. All of this Eastern European life is there in Sholom Aleichem. It’s a microcosm of that world, a world that is slipping into some kind of forgetfulness.
Q. Why did you title the show “Laughter Through Tears”?
A. In this world, there’s always a tear in the middle of a laugh. And in the middle of grief, you laugh. It’s how you survive.
Q. How many characters do you play in the show?
A. It’s really the intersection of two journeys. I start and end the play as myself. In the middle, I’m Sholom Aleichem, and I turn myself into many other characters - men, women, grandfathers ... When I got done with the script, I had enough for two more plays on the cutting room floor ... It has music, too. Sholom Aleichem was a great lover of music. I chose Yiddish songs, but I translated each into English.
Q. Are you hoping to take the show elsewhere?
A. We’re talking to producers in Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto and New York. Los Angeles is where we live, so it would be nice to do it there. I’m the proverbial wandering Jew. Well, maybe a cross between that and the Flying Dutchman - the Flying Jew.
Q. Is part of your motivation in doing the show to remind people of the Yiddish language and culture?
A. Sure, I worry that Yiddish is being shoved on the back burner. At universities, it becomes a scholarly enterprise. At home, people speak it, read it, write it, and they’re not all Jews. So much of the language was murdered along with 6 million people in Europe. We’re free to cultivate it now, but it has been neglected.
Q. You have had such a multifaceted career. What moments or roles do you treasure most?
A. “The Disputation” at the Coconut Grove (Fla.) Playhouse was a highlight. So was “Fiddler on the Roof” - my Tevye WAS my grandfather. Also, there were some roles I had to reach farther for. “Zorba the Greek” was so free, so unencumbered that one started to envy the man. You know you can’t be as free, but you wish you could.
Q. What advice do you give theater students?
A. I tell them that you need to graduate both from theater school and from Disappointment 101. It’s a very rough place. You have to learn how to take it and how to swallow the bile.
Q. How difficult is it to do a solo show when you’re getting close to your 85th birthday?
A. It’s 90 minutes without intermission. It’s taxing, but I don’t collapse at the end. Adrenalin keeps me going.