Being uncle Topol

By John Nathan, June 20, 2008
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The iconic Israeli actor is to take on a caddish father-figure role in London. So what happens to that inner Fiddler that has defined his career?

Chaim Topol is singing. To make a point about a lyric, he wants to get to a particular line in a particular song which, when he sings it on stage this summer, will induce sighs of fond recognition in some, and stony disapproval in others. “Thank heaven for little girls…” He is singing sotto voce so as not to attract attention in the Maida Vale café, not far from his West London apartment.


Israel’s most (and only) famous actor has been cast as Honoré, the caddish uncle in the Lerner and Lowe musical Gigi, which is being revived at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, in London. Honoré is the role made famous — and a tad infamous — by Maurice Chevalier in the 1958 film with Leslie Caron as the eponymous girl who wins the heart of Louis Jourdan’s bored Parisian socialite, Gaston.

The casting of Topol, whose international reputation rests on his Oscar- and Tony-nominated performances as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, has that rare “of course” factor which only occurs when actor and character seem perfect for one another. Time will tell if the marriage is a happy one. But the Open Air’s new artistic director, Tim Sheader, whose production opens in August, has no doubts. “I can quite honestly say that Topol was the first person I thought of for this role,” he says. “When I thought of Honoré, and Maurice Chevalier, I thought of Tevye and Topol.”

But what about that song? Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics were written for much more innocent times. Yet when Chevalier sang it, he had the quality of an old man separated from his object of desire by law rather than propriety. Watching him, you think, thank heaven for the age of consent. “If you follow the lyric,” says Sheader, “you’ll see he’s talking about how little girls ‘grow up in the most delightful way’ — which, admittedly, may be sexist. But the point is, it will not be staged with a little girl sitting on Topol’s knee.”

Topol is making a similar point. He murmurs his way through the lines in perfect pitch but a surprisingly high register until he arrives at his destination: “Without them what would little boys do?”

“You have to connect those two lines,” he says, returning to his soft speaking voice. “If you connect the ‘little boys’ line with ‘little girls’, it solves the problem. But you have to connect them.”

It is not just the way the song is delivered that will make the difference, but the fact that, where Chevalier had a predatory edge, Topol is more, well, caring. It is a characteristic that partly explains the success of his Tevye in Fiddler. His association with the role has lasted over 40 years. It all started when Broadway producer Hal Prince got wind of Topol’s performance in the 1965 Israeli film Sallah Shabati, in which he played a Jewish Yemenite immigrant arriving in Israel with his family. The movie was nominated for an Oscar, but more importantly it was a role for which Topol sported a greying beard to pretend he was much older than he was. It was that ability to age about 25 years that convinced Prince to cast a little-known 32-year-old Israeli as fiftysomething Tevye.

Topol’s inspiration for the role of the Russian milkman came from his grandfather. “I didn’t know him, but I knew about him. He was sort of a Tevye — but as I grow older, it’s my father I think of. Sometimes a line comes out of my mouth and I say: ‘God, this is exactly how my father would say it.’ And it shocks me.”

There are other highlights in Topol’s career, of course — his Othello, his acclaimed Azdak in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle; and lowlights, the disastrous Ziegfeld in 1988 — but it is Tevye for which he will always be known, and it is Tevye to whom he most often returns. Most recently, last year in a run of Fiddler in Australia. And most recently in London in 1994, when he shared the stage with his actress daughter Adi, who played Tevye’s daughter Chava.

“It was one of the great experiences that I have had in the theatre,” he says. “I was very worried, but she was very good. I remember she had never heard me raise my voice. Very few people have, except when I’m paid for it. When as Tevye I had to shout the line: ‘No! I said no!’, she started to cry, and I started to cry.” Will London ever see Topol return as Tevye? He looks up to it. In fact, Topol (he dropped Chaim from his professional name because in London few could pronounce it) looks almost obscenely young for his 72 years. He superstitiously raps the table. “I run every day, I don’t drink tea or coffee, I consume a glass of wine probably every fortnight,” he explains. There is also the vegetarian diet; and the weekly Talmudic studies cannot hurt. “I’m not religious, but I love it,” he says.

They offered him the chance to take over from Henry Goodman in the recent London production of Fiddler, but he turned it down. “I liked what he [Goodman] did. But you can’t go wrong with that part. I’ve seen many Tevyes and they’re all good.” So why did he turn this chance down? “I don’t want to go into it,” he says, but then adds: “I wasn’t impressed with the production… But Goodman was very good. It was different from my interpretation, but he’s a good actor.”

After Gigi it is back to his other role, as the chairman of the Jordan River Project in Israel. It offers Arab and Jewish children with incurable illnesses the chance to go on holiday with their carers. “I’ve collected $24 million, which is the budget of the construction. We open in November, so I have to be back there then.” Unless, presumably, Gigi is so successful it transfers to the West End. “If it transfers I can’t do it this year. The Jordan River Village is the most important thing I’ve done,” he says.

Gigi opens on August 6. Tel: 0844 826 4242


Snapshot

Born
September 9 1935, Tel Aviv

Family
His parents, Josef and Rela Topol, left Poland in 1933 for Palestine. As a youngster, he was called Chaim Erez but became known simply as Topol in the Israeli army. He has been married to his actress wife Galia for 51 years. They have three children

Career
First experienced acting when he was drafted into the army as part of an entertainment troupe. His break came with Sallah Shabati, a 1963 film which won a Golden Globe. As a result of his performance, the producers of the London version of Fiddler on the Roof decided to cast him as Tevye the milkman

On being Jewish
He takes a weekly Talmudic studies class. “I’m not religious, but I love it,” he says.

    Last updated: 3:02pm, August 28 2014