Theo: An Autobiography

Theodore Bikel
  • Review
By – January 21, 2015

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.

Relat­ed content

Shi­ra R. Lon­don is the librar­i­an at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Com­mu­ni­ty High School in Bal­ti­more, MD. She holds an M.L.S. from Colum­bia University.

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