Topol is saying farewell to 'Fiddler' , or maybe not

Bill Hirschman
Sun Sentinel (MCT)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Topol no longer has to age himself to play Tevye in the tour of "Fiddler on the Roof" that continues to cover the country through next summer.

At 74, he doesn't have to restrain his muscular exuberance as he did when he first performed the role at age 30 in his native Tel Aviv. He doesn't have to endure the two hours of makeup that he needed to play the role in the 1971 film.

After more than 2,700 stage performances across seven productions, Chaim Topol also has 44 years of professional and personal experience to steep his performance of Sholem Aleichem's iconic Russian milkman struggling with the changing world of 1905 Tsarist Russia.

"You can't help it," he said over the phone in that husky purr that echoes from deep in a coal mine.

His iconic turn has been criss-crossing the nation since January and is slated to fill performing arts centers in the United States and Canada through June.

"When I first played it, I was married 8 or 9 years; I didn't know what it was like to have been married 25 years. Twenty-five years seemed to me like a lifetime; now it seems like kindergarten."

Now "you know what it means to be married, what it means to give your daughter to a stranger who comes along, what a father thinks when a marriage takes place and what he prays for. I had to imagine that when I was young."

A more profound change is his ability to understand Tevye's acceptance of oppression, especially the violent pogrom staged by his neighbors at a wedding. American audiences and actors didn't question it, but in strife-torn Israel in the mid-1960s, the ingrained tradition was to fight back.

"When I started to play the part, as an Israeli, our feelings about what happened in Europe during the Second World War were very naive. We couldn't really grasp how six million could have gone into the gas chambers or that there were very few places where people really took arms and fought back ... or that people said they were just following orders. ... I think we all understand it better today," he said sadly.

Professionally, he's more mature as well. In his early years, he was not secure enough in his skill to let an opportunity for a laugh pass by. "Now, I would sacrifice a joke to emphasize the importance of a scene."

While Zero Mostel is the definitive Tevye for tens of thousands of New York theatergoers of the mid-1960s, Topol is the unshakeable image of Tevye for tens of millions of people around the world because of the 1971 film.

Mostel sought the film role, but Topol won it in part because he created the role in the London production in 1967 — when he barely spoke 50 words of English. He jokes he probably got the audition because director Jerry Robbins and producer Harold Prince thought he was an old man after seeing him in heavy makeup for the film "Sallah Shabati."

This tour is not meant to re-imagine the work. Instead, it is meant to "preserve" the vision of Robbins and the film's director Norman Jewison, two men whose genius Topol said he cherishes.

Robbins was "the clearest director I ever worked with. Some directors say to you, 'Can you give me some more blue here' and you look at them say, 'What the hell do they mean?' But Jerry spoke in very simple terms and very straight to the point and got what he wanted and he was right in every word that he said."

Jewison's gift for stage actors was providing feedback during filming, Topol said, "With Norman behind the camera you didn't lack for an audience; he was laughing for a whole auditorium full of people."

His age remains an issue. When he played the Maurice Chevalier role in a revival of "Gigi" in London last year, the part was limited enough that it did not wear him out. But the demands of being "Fiddler's" linchpin require him "to be very strict with myself. I have to have at least 8 hours of sleep a night and not do more than two interviews a day and I have a very well-designed" diet.

In fact, some critics along the tour have noted that while he still has more than enough acting technique to deliver the part, he does not have the energy of the 50-year-old character, Tevye.

"It was always exhausting to do eight shows a week when I was 30. I don't know who invented the idea of eight shows a week, but he should be arrested."

Still, he remains quite busy. Among the projects playing another larger than life role, the title character in Kander and Ebb's musical Zorba.

And while this is billed by the publicity department as "the farewell tour," is it true that if someone was to offer the role to him again, he'd take it?

He laughed heartily, "That's very accurate."

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