Friday, July 24, 2015

The Late Great Theodore Bikel

Legendary actor and folk singer Theodore Bikel died on July 20 at the age of 91.

Theodore Bikel was born Theodor Meir Bikel in Vienna on May 2 1924. The family fled to Mandatory Palestine following Nazi Germany's forced annexation of Austria in 1938. In 1943 he began studying acting at  the Habimah theatre in Tel Aviv. In 1946 he left Palestine to study acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. He made his television debut in a production of The Cherry Orchard in 1947. After graduating from RADA in 1948 Lord Laurence Olivier cast him in a small role in the London production of A Streetcar Named Desire. He was eventually cast in the role of the secondary male lead, Mitch.

Theodore Bikel made his film debut in Appointment with Venus in 1951. He appeared in such films as The African Queen (1951), Moulin Rouge (1952), Never Let Me Go (1953), Melba (1953), and The Kidnappers (1953). He migrated to the United States in 1954 and would become a naturalised citizen in 1961. For the remainder of the Fifties he appeared in such films as The Love Lottery (1954), The Young Lovers (1954), The Colditz Story (1955), Above Us the Waves (1955), Flight from Vienna (1956), The Pride and the Passion (1957), The Enemy Below (1957), The Defiant Ones (1958), and A Dog of Flanders (1959). For his role in The Defiant Ones he was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. He appeared on Broadway in Tonight in Samarkand, The Lark, The Rope Dancers, and The Sound of Music.

Theodore Bikel had a regular role on the show Johnny, You're Wanted.  He appeared frequently on television in the Fifties, making guest appearances on such shows as The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, Producers' Showcase, Armstrong Circle Theatre, The Alcoa Hour, Goodyear Playhouse, The United States Steel Hour, Hallmark Hall of Fame, Climax, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Studio One, and Playhouse 90. In 1955 Theodore Bikel began a career as a folk singer, releasing the album Folk Songs of Israel. For the remainder of the Fifties Mr. Bikel would release several more albums. In 1959 Theodore Bikel co-founded the Newport Folk Festival with Oscar Brand,  Harold Leventhal,  Pete Seeger, and George Wein.

In the Sixties Mr. Bikel continued to appear frequently on television. He guest starred on such shows as Naked City, Wagon Train, The Twilight Zone, The Dick Powell Theatre, General Electric Theatre, Dr. Kildare, Route 66, East Side/West Side, Combat!, Rawhide, Gunsmoke, Burke's Law, Mission: Impossible, and Hawaii Five-O. He appeared in the movies My Fair Lady (1964), Sands of the Kalahari (1965), The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming (1966), The Desperate Ones (1967), Sweet November (1968), My Side of the Mountain (1969), and Darker Than Amber (1970).  Mr. Bikel appeared on Broadway in Cafe Crown and Pousse-Café. He toured as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, a role for which he would become well known. He continued to be active as a folk singer, recording several more albums. He continued to appear at the Newport Folk Festival and was the first person besides Bob Dylan to perform Mr.Dylans's song "Blowin' in the Wind" in public. His 1964 album A Folksinger's Choice included Roger McGuinn (then known as "Jim McGuinn" and soon to be famous as one of The Byrds) on banjo.

In the Seventies Theodore Bikel appeared on the TV shows Ironside, Cannon, Mod Squad, Medical Centre, Ellery Queen, Little House on the Prairie, Charlie's Angels, Columbo, Fantasy Island, and All in the Family. He appeared in the films 200 Motels (1971) and The Little Ark (1972). He provided the voice of Aragorn in the animated adaptation of The Return of the King (1980). He released three record albums throughout the decade.

In the Eighties Mr. Bikel appeared on the TV shows Trapper John M.D., Knight Rider, Hotel, Cover Up, The Fall Guy, Hell Town, Dynasty, The Paper Chase, Mike Hammer, Falcon Crest, Beauty and the Beast, The Equaliser, and Star Trek: The Next Generation. He appeared in the films Prince Jack (1985), Very Close Quarters (1986), Dark Tower (1989), and See You in the Morning (1989).

From the Nineties into the Naughts Mr. Bikel appeared in the films Shattered (1991),  Benefit of the Doubt (1993), My Family Treasure (1993), Crisis in the Kremlin (1992), Shadow Conspiracy (1997), Second Chances (1998), Trickle (1998), Crime and Punishment (2002), and The Little Traitor (2007). He appeared on such TV shows as L.A. Law; Law & Order; Babylon 5; Murder, She Wrote; Brooklyn South; The Pretender; and JAG. He released over ten more record albums.

Theodore Bikel was a co-founder of the Actors Federal Credit Union. From 1977 to 1982 he served as president of Actors' Equity. He was president of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America since 1988.

If one word could be used to describe Theodore Bikel, it would perhaps be "chameleon". He was capable of playing an enormous variety of roles. Indeed, he played a number of characters of different nationalities throughout his film, TV, and stage careers. He was a German First Officer in The African Queen and the original Captain Von Trapp on Broadway in The Sound of Music. He played a temperamental Hungarian phoneticist in My Fair Lady. He was a Russian captain in The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming. Not only did he play a number of different nationalities over the years, but a number of different professions as well. He played medical doctors, university professors, military officers, rabbis, politicians, and much more. While many characters have a specific type to which they stick for years, Theodore Bikel had no specific type. He played everything. What is more, he could play everything and do it well.

What is all the more remarkable is that Theodore Bikel was not just a movie actor or television actor. He appeared on stage as well as in films and on television, and was a folk singer on top of all that. He released over thirty albums in his career as a folk singer. In an extraordinarily long career Theodore Bikel seemed to do a bit of everything and do it well. He was one of those few men with enormous talent in multiple media.

1 comment:

Hal said...

Wonderful all-around performer. So versatile. His recurring role on ALL IN THE FAMILY as the butcher with a crush on Edith was where I first saw him, and he had the key supporting role in MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN, a big childhood favorite of mine (along with RING OF BRIGHT WATER which came out the same year). Just two out of many; an amazing body of work. R.I.P.