Theo: An Autobiography

University of Wisconsin Press,  2014

 

Which role do most people associate with the actor Theodore Bikel? Proba­bly Tevye the Dairyman—after all, Bikel played that part for over a thousand performances of Fiddler on the Roof. But in this autobiogra­phy, first published in 1994 and now re-issued with a new postscript as Bikel turns 90, we hear about the many other roles, both on and off the stage, played by this incredibly versatile character actor, political activist, labor leader, and folksinger whose family fled Austria after the Anschluss.

Although he began his career in the theater, Bikel, who was named after Theodor Herzl and whose surname is the Hebrew acronym for “The Children of Israel are holy to God,” was sought after for all sorts of film and TV roles that made use of his chameleon-like ability to assume different personalities, speak several languages, and adopt various foreign accents. While maintaining a busy acting career, however, Bikel’s guitar was his constant companion; he performed folksongs all over the world, including at Buckingham Palace. (Perhaps his most unusual venue was on an aircraft hijacked by a mentally unstable individual, where Bikel performed folk songs to calm the passengers!)

He also recounts many interesting anec­dotes about the famous actors and actresses with whom he worked. From his Broadway debut as Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music (opposite Mary Martin) to his film role in The African Queen, starring Katherine Hep­burn and Humphrey Bogart, to his role playing Kissinger in The Final Days, Bikel achieved critical success, making friends wherever he went.

Apart from his work as an entertainer, Bikel was active in an astonishing number of human rights and liberal political causes. He worked for civil rights for African Americans (and was arrested during protests); advocated for Soviet Jewry and met with Jewish dissidents in the Soviet Union; participated in protests against South African apartheid; served as president of Actor’s Equity; worked to establish the National Council on the Arts; testified before Congress on behalf of the Arts; has been a vocal supporter of the State of Israel (even though he expresses strong objections to the settlements and other Israeli government policies); and has met U.S. presidents from JFK to Clinton.

Bikel’s deep and abiding love for the Jewish people, as well as his strong Jewish identity, are a recurring theme in this book. He cares very deeply about Holocaust survivors, and his international performances of Yiddish songs before heads of state at events commemorat­ing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as well as the anniversary of Kristallnacht remain among his proudest achievements.

Bikel strikes a poignant note as he accepts responsibility for not being more involved with his two sons, born when he was in his mid-forties, as well as his failure to imbue them with his deeply-felt Jewish identity. Nevertheless, the reader will be left with deep respect for this remarkable, principled and accomplished entertainer, who wishes to one day be remembered as “Der Zinger fun zayn folk,” the folksinger of his people. Index, photographs.

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