Growing up in Austria, young Theo Bikel dreamt of performing. He would achieve that goal, and more.
“I was 19 when I first performed professionally on stage, and now I’m 90,” said Bikel from Los Angeles.
But that long career might never have happened, had his family not fled their homeland in 1938.
“That’s when the Germans took over, and Austria became a strange, alien, and solemn country,” said Bikel, who recalled being beaten up at school and chased through parks. “We went from consulate to consulate and embassy to embassy to find a country that would take us, and eventually settled in Palestine.”
Before fleeing, 13-year-old Bikel glimpsed the face behind those dark, evil days.
“We lived on a wide thoroughfare and saw the military march through with tanks,” he recalled. “One of the vehicles was an open limousine with Hitler riding in it, as it passed right by our home. We were very afraid.”
Bikel moved to London in 1945, and the U.S. a decade later, becoming a successful actor, folk singer, author, and lecturer, but never forgot the horror from his childhood.
“It certainly influenced much of my life and my dedication to human and civil rights,” he said. “I cannot bear to see injustice of any kind.”
Bikel’s greatest professional stage success came in 1967 as Tevye, the milkman in “Fiddler on the Roof,” a character he portrayed for four decades in over 2,000 performances across North America. But when the 1971 movie version was filmed, the part was given to Israeli actor Topol.
“I was really hoping to get the role, but (director) Norman Jewison thought otherwise,” he said.
By then, Bikel’s film career was well underway, having begun in 1951 with his first screen appearance in “The African Queen” with Humphrey Bogart. Largely filmed on location in the Congo, Bikel was spared the disease, heat, and wild animals that the rest of the cast endured.
“All my scenes were filmed on a London studio backlot, shooting during the day and appearing in a play at night,” he recalled. “Bogart was tremendous, very relaxed and we played chess. I would see him sitting in the make-up chair in the morning mumbling lines to himself. Then, half an hour later, he was on the set giving a perfect full-blown performance. I was amazed how he made it all come together.”
Bikel attended the 1959 Academy Awards after he and three other cast members were nominated for performances in “The Defiant Ones.” Was there anything memorable about the ceremony?
“Yes,” he replied, “I didn’t win!”
Neither did co-stars Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier, or Cara Williams, although the film grabbed Oscars for best screenplay and cinematography.
Another small but memorable role came in 1964 when Bikel was cast as Hungarian phonetician Zoltan Karpathy in “My Fair Lady.”
“The director wanted someone with an impeccable accent and a lot of hair, so I qualified,” said Bikel. “I really wanted to play Alfred Doolittle, but the role went to Stanley Holloway. I had to dance with Audrey Hepburn, so I insisted they give me ballroom dancing lessons – I wasn’t going to tread on her toes!”
In 1966, Bikel joined Carl Reiner, Alan Arkin, and Jonathan Winters in the comedy “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!”
“That was a superb experience with a great cast and we loved spending time together on and off screen,” he noted.
Bikel made over 150 TV and film appearances, but one role that eluded him was master villain in James Bond’s “Goldfinger.”
“I did a screen test and they even dyed my hair gold,” he said. “They don’t tell you why you don’t get a role. Maybe I just wasn’t strange enough!”
Currently, Bikel is making limited trips around the country to talk about “Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem,” his documentary about Yiddish author and playwright Aleichem (see www.bikel.com).
“Theo: An Autobiography” was also updated and re-released last summer, detailing Bikel’s professional career and lifelong concern for progressive causes.
“In the new edition, at 90, I look at myself from the inside and see what I learned from my life,” he said. “Maybe I can teach others from my experiences.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 500 magazines and newspapers.