Obituary: Chaim Topol

Israeli actor who took so many of us back to our east European roots with his portrayal of shtetl Jew Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof


It was the glint in his eyes, the sonorous baritone. And then the hands, dancing, gesticulating as though he was at some perpetual shtetl wedding.

I last saw Chaim Topol in London when I interviewed him in his car for the JC. He had no time, he was going to his doctor in Harley Street. But then, grudgingly, “Oh it’s you, the Hungarian,” as he called me. “That’s OK. We can talk in the car.”

The interview, of course, wrote itself, filled with Topol’s warm irony. Some years before that we met at a Jewish journalists’ garden party at my house where Fiddler on the Roof was playing on the video. He made his entrance.

There the lugubrious shtetl patriarch, Tevye, swaying into his “If I were a rich man”, confronted the incongruous reality of Topol, the handsome, smiling, casually dressed Israeli, energetic and still youthful looking.

But now Topol is gone, he has taken something even larger with him. It is the image he embodied of the impoverished shtetl Jew, exhausted father of five daughters, finally fleeing his rustic homeland in early 20th-century Czarist Russia for the New World.

The man for whom dispersal meant pain, sacrifice, change and acceptance. He returned many of us to our east European roots, to a pastoral village of sheep and goats and cows and the purity of his faith.

This was the magic Topol brought to Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem’s Tevye. It is hard for us to imagine him in any other role; as an actor he played many other parts, but this transformative Yiddish magic was his alone.

The sanctimonious, sentimental, God-fearing character, accepting the awful challenges of persecution and pogrom with a smile and a philosophical shrug.

Chaim Topol, who has died aged 87, first headed the cast of the 1967 London premiere of Fiddler on the Roof, reprising it in the 1971 film.

He was chosen over Zero Mostel, its original Broadway creator in 1967, and the comedic actor Danny Kaye, by its director Norman Jewison.

He had wanted the part from the beginning. Others who hungered for it included Rod Steiger and, less credibly, Frank Sinatra. It earned Topol an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe Award.

The Israeli army gave permission for him to attend the Oscar ceremony, which added to the poignancy and significance of the moment. Here, literally was the shtetl Jew who, from the ashes of pogrom and Holocaust, morphed into the newly minted Israeli.

He reprised the role of Tevye throughout the 20th century including his Tony-nominated 1990 Broadway revival, and played the character more than 3,500 times, touring Europe, Japan and Australia, New Zealand and America. His farewell tour was in Boston, Massachusetts on November 15, 2009.

He was a glamorous, sexy Galileo in Joseph Losey’s 1975 adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s stage play Life of Galileo, retaining that irresistible glint, and played the scientist Hans Zarkov in Flash Gordon in 1980.

A year later he appeared as the Greek smuggler Milos Columbo in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only, starring Roger Moore. And yet did he ever tire of the role that made him famous?

“Let’s face it, it’s one of the best parts ever written for a male actor in musical theatre,” he told The Boston Globe in 1989 after his 700th portrayal. Some may consider the storyline too soulful, too self regarding, and too sentimental.

But the songs will always endure: —If I were a Rich Man, Tradition and Sunrise, Sunset — because they contain that nugget of eternal wisdom. In the spirit of Sholem Aleichem’s vivid metaphysical imagery, the play contains ghostly images, issues of assimilation, and dangerous confrontations with jeering Cossacks, notably at Tevye’s daughter’s wedding.

The theatre critic Milton Shulman said the show came to represent the resilience of the Jewish people down the ages. Topol had an innocence and modesty about him , particularly in his acknowledgement of Zero Mostel’s “genius as Tevye”, which led him to admit surprise he was given the part himself.

Topol’s name means “tree of life”, and there is something in this imagery which adds weight to his breadth of character that seeped into the role.

Born in pre-state Tel Aviv, he was the son of parents who had fled Poland in the 1930s; his father, a plasterer who had fought with the Haganah in the War of Independence; his mother Rel Goldman, a seamstress. Two sisters followed.

Topol left school at 14 and worked as a printer but joined a Tel Aviv theatre company and helped found the Haifa municipal Theatre in 1961, where he played Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, Azdak in Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Jean in Eugène Ionesco’s surreal Rhinoceros.

Topol fought in the Sinai Campaign in 1956, the Six Day War in 1967 (for which he had to leave the Fiddler cast at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London) and the Yom Kippur War of 1971.

He cut his thespian teeth as a member of an army entertainment troupe, before launching his own satirical revue group, Batzai Yarok, which translates as “the spring onion”. He married comedian Galia Finkelstein, a fellow member of the Labour Movement, at the Mishmar David kibbutz in 1956.

In Israel he was already noted for a character that in some ways anticipated Tevye. It was the angst-ridden immigrant, Sallah Shabati who puts a positive face on all his troubles.

It featured in his army revues and a 1964 film, which looks dated now but was so successful that it was nominated for a best foreign language film Oscar.

Israel’s Independence struggles also played out in Melville Shavelson’s Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), where he co-starred with Kirk Douglas, Topol in the role of an Arab sheikh. He also played a Russian deserter in J Lee Thompson’s Before Winter Comes (1969) co-starring David Niven, John Hurt and Anthony Quayle.

In London when he first played Tevye, with little English, he was tutored by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s voice coach, Cicely Berry.

It led to a fruitful association with the Chichester Festival Theatre where his roles included a match-making general in a musical version of Peter Ustinov’s Romanoff and Juliet, and Othello, which he portrayed in his own words “as a man of the desert”.

A less successful follow-up to Fiddler was The Baker’s Wife, also scripted by Stein. But Topol was nothing if not ambitious.

There was his unfinished attempt to film all the books of the Bible for TV, followed by The House on Garibaldi Street, about the arrest of Adolf Eichmann, with Martin Balsam and Janet Suzman.

His London finale was in a lighter vein. He braved the British outdoors by playing Honoré in Gigi at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre .

He published his autobiography, Topol by Topol, in 1981 and cleverly illustrated his compendium of Jewish jokes and anecdotes, To Life, in 1994.

Topol travelled between Tel Aviv and London, where he had a house and was noted for his work with chronically ill children of all religious backgrounds through the Jordan River Village, which he co-founded and opened in 2012.

Topol is survived by Galia and their children Omer, Adi and Anat.

Chaim Topol: born September 9, 1935. Died March 8, 2023

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