In the great panoply of iconic male acting roles, the part of an impoverished milkman in turn-of-the-20th-century Russia — transport, horse and cart — and a hot-shot detective who scorches the earth in a red-striped Torino are worlds apart. But no. The two are deeply connected, insists Paul Michael Glaser, who found worldwide fame in 1970s cop show Starsky and Hutch and is now stepping into the shoes of the philosophising Tevye in a UK theatre tour of Fiddler on the Roof.
“Tevye is an everyman — he speaks for everyone, as he tries to reconcile himself to the way life changes,” Glaser says. “In the process, his is a story which cuts across all religions. And Starsky, well, he was an everyman, too. I didn’t play him as Jewish. People often wonder whether he was, but to me he was just ethnic. So I was able to play him lots of ways — sad, whimsical, serious, adult, childish. How many characters do you know that can do that? Tevye is one of them. That’s where the common ground is. In a sense, I’m an everyman, too.”
Actor, director, writer, poet and campaigner, Glaser has enjoyed a diversely stellar career. Yet for many, he remains frozen in aspic —- or rather a chunky cardigan— as Detective Dave Starsky.
But being synonymous with a role is something he is comfortable with — indeed, he appreciates the irony of now playing a character inextricably linked to Chaim Topol.
“People will inevitably draw comparisons between me and Topol. But that doesn’t bother me. There will be those who are open to me as Tevye and those who aren’t. But that’s their issue. I have no problems with that.”
The UK tour is not Glaser’s first connection with Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s glorious musical. At the age of 27, and with a background in theatre, he landed a role in the 1971 movie version as Perchik, the tutor and Bolshevik revolutionary who falls in love with Hodel, Tevye’s second daughter. It was a part he almost did not get since both he and director Norman Jewison considered him too old.
When, over 40 years later, he was contacted about playing the lead in a production directed by Strictly’s Craig Revel Horwood, he jumped at the opportunity.
Yet, despite his take on Tevye as the everyman, Glaser reluctantly acknow-ledges that it is a role for a Jewish actor. “I know it’s a little controversial to say this but Tevye pulls on the collective Jewish experience, the Jewish history is there in every Jew. That’s why it needs to be a Jewish actor.”
This highlights a baffling contradiction as Glaser’s own belief system has been supplanted by a kind of new-age spirituality. “I have the heritage, I am Jewish,” he stresses. “But it’s about the greater connection. A play like Fiddler enhances feelings about religion and the human spirit and capacity for love. I do not like making distinctions between myself and others, my religion and others.”
Glaser’s father came from a traditional kosher home. Although also Jewish, his mother was an agnostic. The Glasers didn’t do Friday nights but celebrated the major festivals and he did have a barmitzvah in Boston — even though his architect father had designed a shul on Rhode Island.
It is a time he looks back on with a curious sense of nostalgia. “I remember having to study the haftorah and being plied with gifts, watches, cameras, and kisses from elderly relatives. In fact, a couple of years ago my 15-year-old daughter Zoe was invited to lot of barmitzvahs and batmitzvahs. And the first time she said: ‘Dad can I have 100 dollars to give as a gift,’ I said to her: ‘Don’t kids get [actual] gifts any more?’ She told me no, these days, people gave money.” A concept he finds a little bloodless.
“I have fond memories of sitting with my father in the synagogue. He had a lovely voice. I loved the cantor at my grandfather’s synagogue. My father was Reform but became more religious when his father and mother died.
“I was a bit of rebel — in fact, I was chucked out of second-year Hebrew school. I always had a spiritual need and, for me as a young man, Judaism wasn’t doing it. By happenstance, I was dating a girl who was into Eastern philosophy so, in fits and starts, became a Jew-Bu, a Jewish Buddhist.”
He visited Israel as a teenager in 1959, working on kibbutzim and touring the country. “I went again in 1979. Starsky and Hutch was a big hit in Israel and I was invited to celebrate the anniversary of the state.” But Glaser professes “no real desire to go again. I felt the connection to the land and I understand the whole Israeli mentality and why they are the way they are but if I am brutally honest, I am put off by the aggressiveness in their psyche.”
Although Starksy brought Glaser enormous fame, his private life also became a source of international attention in 1981 when his wife, Elisabeth, contracted HIV through a contaminated blood transfusion while giving birth to their daughter, Ariel, passing on the virus to the baby.
Ariel died in 1988 at the age of seven. Elisabeth died, aged 47, in 1994. The Glasers’ son, Jake, born in 1984, contracted HIV from his mother in utero but is healthy.
One wonders if Glaser’s non-specific spirituality was comfort enough as he bore the enormity of his tragedy. When it became clear that his wife was facing a terminal prognosis, they saw “mortality counsellors”.
He reflects that, “the only key fear is helplessness in the face of our mortality. I can choose to celebrate my courage in the face of helplessness and have compassion in my fear, compassion for myself and my sadness. It became something I could practise so, when I was having a difficult time, I could put my hands together and be thankful for this opportunity to remind myself of my connection to my spiritual existence.”
Elisabeth was Jewish — as is ex-wife, producer Tracy Barone, with whom he had Zoe. But barmitzvah gift-giving aside, his children have no real involvement in Judaism.
“I did not expose my children to a lot of Judaism because of how I felt. They haven’t shown an interest and I’m fine with that. I think there is more to life than one’s religious persuasion.”
Yet Glaser clearly has that innate affinity with Jews, who regard him as one of their own. And he has committed to do a charity event for Manchester Jewish Community Care when Fiddler plays at Salford’s Lowry Theatre.
But, among the cast, is he the only Jew in the village? “I haven’t asked if any of the others are Jewish. The script involves words on a page that have to come to life. We all have that one thing in common, making a connection with the audience.”
Paul Michael Glaser is every man’s everyman. Tevye would be proud.