Cultural Chameleon Theodore Bikel Dead at 91

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BikelIt was announced today that actor, folk singer, political activist Theodore Bikel, a cultural chameleon who began life in Austria in 1924, was dead at age 91. The international star, known for his diversity in roles and talent, died in Los Angeles at the UCLA Medical Center,

Bikel made his mark on stage, screen, folk music, the civil rights movement in the 1960s. He originated the role of Capt. Von Trapp in Sound of Music on Broadway, spent years (more than 2,200 performances) as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and even appeared in television shows as diverse as The Twilight Zone and Dynasty. He played characters from all over the world, taking advantage of the fact he could speak nine languages, and sang effectively in 21 languages.

He played a German in his first movie, The African Queen (1951), where he reportedly spent off hours playing chess with Humphrey Bogart. The actor/singer, who became a U.S. citizen in 1961, played people who were Chinese, Greek, Scottish, Spanish, Czech, Jewish, Hungarian, Armenian, Polish, Bulgarian, Italian, Serbian, South African, Russian, Indian, Hungarian and British – believably – at various times in his career. At one point, he told The New York Times: “Some actors are what they are no matter what name you give them,” citing Clark Gable as an example of someone who looked and talked similarly in every role. Bikel added, “I like to change shape, accent and gait. That way I never get stale.”

Bikel enjoyed a parallel career as a successful folk singer, accompanying himself on guitar, mandolin, balalaika and harmonica. He even helped found, with Pete Seeger, the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island in 1959.

Besides working on voter rights drives in Mississippi in the 19602, he was outspoken advocate for the rights of Jews worldwide, and was even arrested in 1986 in front of the Soviet Embassy in Washington for protesting on behalf of Soviet Jews. He was appointed in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter to the National Council on the Arts, where he served until 1982.He also was president of the Actors’ Equity and the Associated Actors and Artistes of America at times during his 70-year career.

Although Theodor Meir Bikel was born in Vienna on May 2, 1924, he did not consider himself to be Viennese. “I am nothing of the kind; I am an Austrian-born Jew,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I refuse to let a country that so shamefully treated my people lay any claim to me, to my life, to my successes, to my failures, to my very identity.”

When he was 13 and Adolf Hitler’s power was mounting, the family moved to Palestine and lived on a kibbutz. He later apprenticed at a theater in Tel Aviv before going to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in England.

After graduating from RADA with honors in 1948, Laurence Olivier offered him a small part in the London staging of A Streetcar Named Desire. Within a few months, the talented Bikel took over the second biggest male role. Seeing him in the play led director John Huston to cast him in The African Queen.

Coming to the United States in 1954, he made his Broadway debut in in Tonight in Samarkand with Louis Jourdan. He then appeared in several other Broadway plays, including The Rope Dancers, for which he received a Tony nomination in 1958.

The next year, Bikel originated the role of von Trapp on Broadway and received another Tony nomination. The show’s composers, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, reportedly created the folk song Edelweiss specifically for him, since he was also gaining fame as a folk singer.

Bikel’s screen roles were largely supporting ones, including portraying a sympathetic Southern sheriff in The Defiant Ones (1958), which earned him an Academy Award nomination. In other notable film roles, he played Zoltan Karpathy in My Fair Lady (1964), a Soviet captain in The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966) and even appeared in Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels (1971).

On television, he appeared in such diverse series as Mod Squad, Medical Center, Charlie’s Angels, All in the Family, Falcon Crest, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Murder She Wrote and JAG. In TV movies, he was real-life-based dramas Victory at Entebbe and The Final Days (which was based on the book by journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and he portrayed Henry Kissinger).

Cultural chameleon Theodore Bikel, now dead at 91, leaves behind his fourth wife Aimee Ginsburg, two sons from his second marriage, two stepsons and three grandchildren. The talented artist took great pride in his varied career. “You do as much as you can in as many fields as you know how to master,” he said. When people asked about his many accomplishments, he answered, “Whatever I don’t do well, I don’t do.”

Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss

New York Times: Theodore Bikel, Master of Versatility in Songs, Roles and Activism, Dies at 91
IMDB: Theodore Bikel
People: Fiddler on the Roof Star Theodore Bikel Dies at 91
Washington Post: Theodore Bikel, singer, activist and Oscar-nominated actor, dies at 91