“Who, day and night, must scramble for a living / Feed a wife and children, say his daily prayers? / And who has the right, as master of the house, / To have the final word at home?” – Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof
In 1967, a 43 year old actor and singer, Theodore Bikel, helped to immortalize the barrel-chested, booming-voiced character Tevye in the Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof.
Bikel would go on to play the role more than 2,000 times – more than any other actor – but his career did not begin or end there. Born in Vienna in 1924, his family immigrated to then-Palestine after the Nazi’s occupied Austria (Bikel was 13). He started acting as a teenager, relocated to London to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and moved to America in 1954.
He has played many other roles on Broadway (he originated the role of Captain Von Trapp in the production of The Sound of Music), television and in movies. He is also an accomplished guitar player and folk singer, singing all over the world in Yiddish and English, and co-founder (with Pete Seeger and George Wain) of the now legendary Newport Folk Festival. He has won an Emmy Award and been nominated for both an Academy Award and Tony Award.
As a performer and musician he has been unarguably prolific, but he has also devoted his life to another passion: social change, Jewish causes and arts advocacy. According to his personal website, Bikel was:
Active for many years in the civil rights movement [and] was also an elected delegate to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. He formerly held the position of Senior Vice President of the American Jewish Congress, he served as President of the Actors’ Equity Association (1973-82), as a Vice President of the International Federation of Actors (FIA), (1981-1991), as a Board Member of Amnesty International (USA), and, by Presidential appointment, as a member of the National Council on the Arts (1977-82). He is currently the President of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America (4A’s).
His folk music also overlapped with his activism, including his album “Silent No More,” which is comprised of Soviet Jewish Freedom songs smuggled from the USSR. In 2009, Bikel celebrated his 85th birthday with a star-studded musical tribute event at Carnegie Hall, and donated all of the proceeds to the Juvenile Law Center, which protects children’s rights in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
Bikel said about the event: “Throughout my life I have been equally passionate about music and social justice, and have allied myself with others whose use guitars, banjos, fiddles and words to conquer fear and injustice. I can think of no better way to celebrate that life than a night of music with some of my nearest and dearest friends, and no more deserving cause than protecting the rights of our nation’s most vulnerable children.”