Thursday, July 23, 2015

Tradition

Theodore Bikel (1924 - 2015)


On July 20th, Theodore Bikel -- actor, singer; activist; Mensch -- passed away at the age of 91. His career in acting stretched over nearly seventy years; he was another part of the world I'd grown up with, and taken for granted; another thing you don't notice, until it vanishes. He seemed timeless -- like his friend, Pete Seeger -- because he seemed to have enough energy for five men.

He was the Jewish grandfather you always wanted, someone who seemed always on the verge of dancing (because life can move sideways, in an instant; and so, dance), and whether you were Jewish or not was immaterial.

Bikel was originally an Austrian ( Aus Wein, in fact), and fourteen in 1938 when the Germans absorbed the country into the Reich and marched into its capital in the Anschluss. That resulted in the persecution and terrorizing of Austrian Jews, forcible expropriation of their property, physical assaults and public humiliations, so vicious and intense that the Germans were taken aback by it. Bikel and his family were able to emigrate to (then) Palestine, where they remained until coming to England, and then America.

On Stage: Bikel As von Trapp To Mary Martin's Maria
In Palestine, and then for a few years in London's West End (where he came to the attention of both Michael Redgrave, then Lawrence Olivier), Bikel grew as an actor, and also a folk singer -- someone whose heart was on fire, like a character out of a story by Sholem Aleichem, whose works he admired all his life.

He went on to star on Broadway, premiering the role of the dour but correct Austrian Kapitäin von Trapp in The Sound Of Music (the role Christopher Plummer would make famous in the film version) -- and, Bikel helped to create one of the show's signature tunes: During out-of-town tryouts for the musical, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wanted to include a song that would underscore the aristocratic von Trapp's sadness at being forced to escape the Austria he loved.

Bikel's ability with a guitar meant his von Trapp could play and sing; his personal history meant he understood (as Rogers and Hammerstein would not) precisely what it meant to lose your country by forced emigration. The three men collaborated on what became the song, Edelweiss.

Bikel also went on to be one actor who defined the role of Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof. Bikel's abilities as both actor and singer, combined with an understanding of Aleichem's stories, led him to play the character more than two thousand times during his career.

As opposed to Zero Mostel's interpretation (he premiered the role), Bikel's Tevye was dialed back -- Mostel's acting experience was rooted in Catskills vaudeville and comedy; Bikel came from a classical stage background, and he criticized Mostel for putting more schtick in the role than necessary.


His Teyve was just a man, but a man in community, en familie, and in a relationship with God, who in village life is a member of the congregation who is always treated as if he'd just stepped away for a moment.

"I now pronounce you man and wife. Continue with the execution."
In Hollywood, he became an in-demand character actor -- in 1954, the slightly-at-sea Kapitäin of the German gunboat who marries Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in "The African Queen", and then orders their execution to continue; Heini, the First Officer of the German U-Boat to Curt Jurgen's Captain in The Enemy Below (1957);  the Captain of the stranded Russian submarine in Stanley Kramer's 1966 comedy, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.

Put all that together with the Austrian Kapitäin von Trapp of "Sound Of Music", and that's one heck of a lot of captains.

Bikel As Karpathy In 'My Fair Lady'
With Alan Arkin (R) In The Russians Are Coming
He was Zoltan Karparthy, the obsequious guest of Professor Henry Higgins ("Oozing charm from every pore / he oiled his way across the floor"), in My Fair Lady; and appeared in countless roles on television series through the Sixties, Seventies and into the Eighties. His face, his voice, was part of the texture of our culture.

Bikel In A Publicity Shot For Billboard Magazine, 1970
Bikel was also an unashamed Liberal -- and, like Pete Seeger, was generally to be found at a political rally with his guitar, leading people in song. Music, he knew, could move the human spirit more quickly than any impassioned political argument. He was an unashamed supporter of the State of Israel, and just as unashamed an activist, vocal critic of the acts of different Israeli governments towards the Palestinians.

He was an elder representative of a tradition of thought, argument, and passion, and a role model for anyone who considers what it must be to age. Even as he reached ninety, in a recent interview on the PBS program Democracy Now! Bikel appeared sharp, lucid and direct, his sense of humor intact with all its nuance and spirit.

As I've said: One more Mensch leaves us; now he knows what we do not. And we live in a world with a limited supply of Mensches.
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