Where to begin when talking to the wonder that is Theodore Bikel? In his 90 years (and counting), hes been arrested protesting the treatment of Soviet Jewery, and protesting for civil rights in the American south. He originated the role of Captain Von Trapp on Broadway, recorded the best-selling Yiddish folk albums of all time, was a delegate to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, was nominated for an Oscar for playing a southern sheriff in THE DEFIANT ONES, is part of the mythology of Star Trek, and has played the part of Tevye more than any other actor ever (over 2000 performances). He also fled Austria for Palestine as the Nazis came to power, and in 2007 became the president of the Board of Partners for Progressive Israel
It would, obviously, take several hours, if not several days, to hear even a fraction of the marvelous stories and insights that this superb and erudite raconteur has to offer.
I made do with asking about his current project, IN THE SHOES OF SHOLOM ALEICHEM, the cinematic version of his one-man play about the beloved Yiddish author who created the character of Tevye. This became a discussion about the nature of art, and why a character written about and for a particular group at a particular time has become universal.
That was just the beginning.
We moved on to his friendships with Sholom Aleichems granddaughter, author Belle Kaufman, and how his friendship with another woman of note, Dr. Ruth Westheimer let him to John Lollos, the director of SHOES. In a more philosophical mood, he talked of the role of the artist in society, the responsibilities beyond those of entertaining an audience. I asked him about being invited by the Austrian government to perform for the 75th anniversary of Kristalnacht, the event that had caused him and his family to leave Austria, the importance of singing a song in the face of sadness, and his current take on the ongoing unrest in the Middle East.
Humane,warm, intelligent, and most of all deeply committed to the dignity and worth of every human being, Mr. Bikel was and is everything I had hoped he would be. And more. His musings that ended our conversation are a profound benediction and prayer for peace.
His latest project, THEODORE BIKEL: IN THE SHOES OF SHOLEM ALECHEIM, is a cinematic reinvention of his one-man show of the same name that traces the impact of that author on his life, and by extension, the life of everyone with whom he has come into contact. Still going strong at 90, Bikels many credits include the best-selling Jewish folk albums of all time, making his screen debut in THE AFRICAN QUEEN as the German captain who wants to hang Bogart, being nominated for an Oscar for playing a southern sheriff in THE DEFIANT ONES, a neat trick for a guy born in Vienna who grew up in Israel, and, on stage marrying Mary Martin every night as the original Captain Von Trapp in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, and setting a record for playing the character of Tevye in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF more times than anyone else. His many screen credits include a Hungarian dialect expert in MY FAIR LADY as well as roles in THE ENEMY BELOW, 200 MOTELS, and on television he has appeared in both the Star Trek and Babylon 5 franchises, as well as essaying the role of Henry Kissinger. He is also the past president of Actors Equity, he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter for a six-year term to the National Council for the Arts, and in 2007 became president of the Board of Partners for Progressive Israel and, not surprisingly, he is a member of Mensa International. Last night the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival awarded Mr. Bikel the Freedom of Expression award, and was privileged to host the world premiere of IN THE SHOES OF SHOLOM ALEICHEM. We in audience were also privileged to have Mr. Bikel sing for us, as well as doing a Q&A.
I spoke with Mr. Bikel in the lobby bar of the Four Seasons hotel in San Francisco, which provided its own evocative soundscape.