Remembering Theodore Bikel

WFDU-FM’s TRADITIONS Playlist for July 26, 2015

Over the past few years, I find myself broadcasting memorial shows much too frequently. The folk music community recently said farewell to another influential member when Theodore Bikel passed away on July 20 at the age of 91.

Theodore Bikel at NERFA - photo by Wanda Adams Fischer

Theodore Bikel at NERFA – photo by Wanda Adams Fischer

A true multi-faceted artist whose career spanned the stage, screen, radio and concert hall and the printed word, Bikel gave us both iconic characters and powerful songs that will forever remain in our hearts and minds. I had the honor of meeting Bikel on a couple of occasions, the first time was back in 1989 at the Newport Folk Festival, which that year was celebrating the 30th anniversary of the first fest, founder, was then celebrating the 30th anniversary of the historic festival that Bikel helped create. I discovered Bikel to be down to earth and yet extremely eloquent, and there was a twinkle in his eye that told me he loved to be part of the folk crowd. Whether it was on film or concert stage, Theo Bikel gave 100% to his art.

Theodore Bikel was born into a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria in 1924. His father, an active Zionist, named him after Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. When he was 14 years old, the family moved to Palestine to flee the Nazis. While in Palestine, Theo began his acting career as developed a love of music which would continue for the rest of his life. When he was a teenager living in Tel Aviv, Bikel made his stage debut when playing the title character in a play called Tevye the Milkman. Years later, Bikel would play Tevye in the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Young Theo was fluent in a number of languages including Hebrew, Yiddish, and German and he was developing his English and French. His initial ambition was to teach comparative language, but his developing love of the theater pulled him in a different direction. He became an apprentice at the influential Habimah Theatre in 1943, and a year later he helped co-found the Israeli Chamber Theatre. In 1946 he entered London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and graduated with honors two years later. While at the Royal Academy, Bikel also pursued his interest in folk music and the guitar.

Sir Laurence Olivier would discover him performing in London theater production and offered him a role as an understudy for a London West End production of Streetcar Named Desire. Soon, Bikel found himself playing the role of Mitch in the production, opposite Vivian Leigh. His successful performance would soon lead to other roles on stage and screen. In 1951, Bikel made his film debut playing a German Navy officer in The African Queen opposite Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. Bikel’s ability to master a variety of international characters would lead to memorable roles on stage, screen and TV. In 1958, he was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor for his role as a southern sheriff in The Defiant Ones. Among his notable roles, he would play such characters as a Russian submarine commander in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, a Hungarian linguistics professor in “My Fair Lady” and a sadistic French commander in The Pride and the Passion. Other roles found him portraying a Scottish police officer, a Polish professor, a Greek peanut vendor, and even Henry Kissinger. Always powerful and interesting, Bikel had a knack for capturing these characters, an art that is often overlooked in modern theater.

Theodore Bikel as Tevye

Theodore Bikel as Tevye

Perhaps his most famous roles came on the stage, where Bikel portrayed Teyve in Fiddler on the Roof. Although he was not the first actor to play the part (the play debuted on Broadway in 1964 and Bikel took over the role in 1967), Bikel performed the role more than any other actor, over 2000 appearances. Bikel also originated the role of Captain Von Trapp in the first production of The Sound of Music. He didn’t care for the limited role at first, but Rodgers and Hammerstein composed the song “Edelweiss” specifically for Bikel to sing and play the guitar, capitalizing on his love for folk music.

Bikel’s folk music career began, almost by accident, in 1955. Elektra Records founder and president Jac Holzman heard Bikel singing at a party in Greenwich Village and made the suggestion to record. The success of  Folk Songs of Israel led to a 15 album partnership with Elektra records that would continue through 1967. Bikel would record albums of Jewish, Russian Gypsy and other ethnic albums that sold very well and helped give the young record label some solid financial footing.

During his lifetime, Bikel released 27 albums and sang in 21 different languages. (Rhino Records is re-issuing many of the original Elektra recordings.) His repertoire also included many American folk songs, and at his 90th birthday celebration at the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills, California he chose to sing Phil Och’s “When I’m Gone” to end the evening.

The folk music revival owes a lot to Theodore Bikel. In addition to bringing a number of Jewish and international folk songs to eager audiences, Bikel was also a co-founder of the Newport Folk Festival, along with others including Pete Seeger and George Wein. With business partner Herb Cohen, Bikel opened The Unicorn, a folk music coffeehouse in Los Angeles. The success of the Unicorn led to the opening of Cosmo Alley, a club that also presented poets like Maya Angelou and comedians like Lenny Bruce.

Once in an interview about his involvement with the Newport Folk Festival, Bikel said that music was “one of the few answers to the chaos that we have“ and festivals and folk music offered opportunities to avoid strife and give hope.

Theodore Bikel performing at NERFA in 2010 - photo by Wanda Adams Fischer

Theodore Bikel performing at NERFA in 2010 – photo by Wanda Adams Fischer

In 2010, Theodore Bikel attended the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance Conference. He was invited by Sonny Ochs (radio host, producer and sister of Phil Ochs) to participate in a panel discussion entitled “Wisdom of the Elders.” Sonny and John Platt interviewed Bikel along with David Amram and Oscar Brand on their roles in the folk revival and with folk music. (I aired portions of this discussion in my memorial broadcast for Bikel.) Bikel performed a couple of folk songs and shared stories of his illustrious career. He also spoke about his involvement with the civil rights movement. As one of the audience members that memorable afternoon, I can report that Bikel’s comments were inspirational to new generations of folksingers and songwriters who have benefited from the work that Bikel began.

Starting early in life, Bikel was involved with issues of human rights and progressive causes as well as a strong supporter of the labor movement. He joined Actors Equity in 1954, shortly after arriving in the United States, and would serve as the president of the union from 1977 to 1982.

The multi-faceted career of Theodore Bikel may never be replicated. The diversity that Bikel displayed in both theater and music is difficult to achieve in todays day and age, where typecasting and labels tend to pigeonhole artists. Bikel himself noted that he would often receive advice to focus on one aspect of his career, but that was not in his nature. The ability to explore and create while taking chances should be the credo of any artist. Theodore Bikel left us with a rich catalog of performances that will be remembered. Let us hope that future generations will be inspired when they discover the immense body of work of this extraordinary man.

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