No ivory tower for Theodore Bikel: Remembering the actor, musician, activist

No ivory tower for Theodore Bikel: Remembering the actor, musician, activist

Theodore Bikel attends a Hollywood film festival in April 2013. 
(Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Theodore Bikel attends a Hollywood film festival in April 2013. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Theodore Bikel had an amazing career for the length and breadth of it, said Ted Pappas, the producing artistic director of the Pittsburgh Public Theater.

The actor and musician, who died July 21 at 91, was “on top of his performing, a man of civic conscience. He was a great example that we mustn’t seclude ourselves in an ivory tower of our art,” said Pappas.

Bikel was arrested for protesting the Vietnam War in the 1960s and again in 1986 outside the Soviet Embassy in Washington during a Soviet Jewry demonstration.

As he reflected on Bikel’s career, Pappas recalled all the fathers the actor played. There was Tevye, in “Fiddler on the Roof,” “the not-so-perfect father, but one who would embrace you no matter what.” And Captain von Trapp in “The Sound of Music.”

And much later in his career, as the father of Worf, the Klingon officer in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

“In a show about the best of all possible worlds, you have Bikel as the best of all possible fathers.”

Pappas met Bikel only once, at a social gathering in New York. “He was a big bear of a man, articulate and sophisticated.”

Despite Bikel’s storied career, it was a tough sell to hire him to perform at the Washington, D.C., Jewish Community Center’s Theater J in 2004.

The contract would be for 10 weeks at “a lot of money per week,” recalled Ari Roth, who was then the artistic director of Theater J. Bikel would be the lead in Hyam Maccoby’s “The Disputation,” about a trial over Judaism in medieval Spain.  “I had to make the case that Theodore Bikel was worth the price.”

Bikel was a staple for decades in American film, TV and theater, and in the Jewish cultural consciousness. And there were those 2,000 performances as Tevye, give or take a Rich Man.

So, of course Bikel came with a price tag. “It was a lot for the JCC at the time,” Roth recalled.

And nobody knew if an audience would come to see Bikel.

“He was 80,” Roth said. “There was a question of whether he was relevant. It was an institutional gamble in seeing a living legend past his prime.

“The Disputation” sold out.

“He was a force of nature,” was how Deborah Tannen described Bikel. Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, became friends with Bikel 15 years ago and helped connect the performer with Theater J. During Bikel’s Washington run, Tannen and her husband often joined the actor and his wife for dinner. Meals were invariably after midnight, once the night’s performance had ended.

Tannen befriended Bikel when he was in his 80s. But she grew up knowing him as a folk singer. “He was singlehandedly responsible for bringing Jewish folk music to the United States. She described the cover for his album “Theodore Bikel Sings Jewish Folk Songs” — “the one with the graffiti on the wall, where he’s standing there, leaning on his guitar case. Every family I knew had that album.”

But here she was in the Bikels’ Washington hotel room, watching him light Shabbat candles and singing the blessings in his familiar baritone.

Bikel returned to Washington and Theater J in 2008 to premiere his one-man show, “Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears,” his attempt to separate Yiddish culture from the kitsch of Tevye and to honor his father, who bequeathed a love of the classic Yiddish writer.

“There was always a danger of being sentimentalized,” Tannen said. For Bikel, “Yiddish culture was a living thing. The Yiddish language was inseparable from the lives and experiences of the people.”

“There was drama in collaborating with Theo,” Roth writes on his Facebook page. “There was payoff, and there was a price.”

He elaborated: “Theo didn’t like tough love, and he was too experienced to accept criticism of his script.”

Despite working with Bikel the actor, Roth, too, first connected with Bikel the folk singer and activist, the man who co-founded the Newport Folk Festival.

“He was a teacher of music, a walking songbook,” Roth said. “The way he performed with his modest, classical six-string guitar. His intensity. He just owned the song. He got to its marrow. I liked it better than any of his acting.”

When Arena Theater staged “Fiddler” last November, Tannen appeared with Bikel, who was not in the production, for an after-performance Q&A.

“He was quite debilitated,” she said. But as they spoke and he discussed his work as Tevye, “you saw Tevye come to life from this 90-year-old man in an armchair. His entire body came alive.”

David Holzel is a senior writer for Washington Jewish Week. He can be reached at