Transcript of the interview with actor
Theodore Bikel
whose career has taken him from Broadway to movies to television and records.
Recently he has been touring in the role of Tevye in
The interview aired on Monday, June 10, 1996 at 7:45pm eastern with Peter Anthony Holder
the evening open-line talk show host on
CJAD 800 AM, Montreal.

CJAD: How are you sir?

BIKEL: Very well indeed, thanks.

CJAD: It certainly is a role that you are very, very familiar with. You have done it for quite awhile, have you not?

BIKEL: Yes I have. I've done it on and off for the last 29-30 years. I say on and off because obviously I go away from it. I do other things, films, television, other plays. But it's a perennial. I always come back to it.

CJAD: Do you find that it is one of those roles that is kind of meant for you?

BIKEL: You might say that, yes. In more ways then one.

CJAD: How so.

BIKEL: Well, I'm not only close as an actor, as a performer. But I'm also close to the material. When I was a young kid my Father used to sit us down in the living room on Tuesday nights and read stories and plays and Sholem Aleichem on whose work this is based was foremost among the works that he read. So I have this, almost with my Mother's milk, or with my Father's tea if you will. And then also Tevye, the character that I play is almost identical in outlook and attitude to my Grandfather.

CJAD: The play itself is celebrating its 30th anniversary, correct.


CJAD: And you've had the opportunity of playing it on the road. Did you play it on Broadway?


CJAD: I know that Topol was known for playing it.

BIKEL: actually Zero Mostel.

CJAD: Yes Zero Mostel. Topol did the movie.

BIKEL: In the movie, yes.

CJAD: How do you feel about roles like that, that you've done for so long, yet other people are known for them. The reason why I bring this up is because I also know that you did SOUND OF MUSIC on Broadway.

BIKEL: That's right, I created the role of Captain Von Trapp.

CJAD: How do you feel when you create a role like that and the film comes out and it goes to somebody else? Were you up for that role in the movie?

BIKEL: No, and there was a reason for that, because Mary Martin was about ten years older then I was, which was okay on the stage. You could get away with her playing a little postulant nun, but in film, you know, once the camera comes close, it wouldn't have worked. So it was in politics to not give her the role and yet have me play it.

CJAD: Okay, so you didn't get the role either because of the close association with Mary Martin and the stage performance, that's basically it?

BIKEL: That's right.

CJAD: The situation with the play you're in right now. As I said, it's very close to your heart. You're very familiar with it. For those who have seen it, it's quite a performance, yet there are some people who would say "it's an ethnic play" and it doesn't draw in a wide range of audience participation.

BIKEL: Not true. The ethnicity of it is just the background of it. It's set in 1905 and the conflict is between Russians and Jews, but that's just the canvas on which it is painted. Just in the same sense, TEA HOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON was set in Japan. Other things set in Central Europe. Other people said in England....and yet we played. Knowing that we are not English and we are not Japanese, and you know, there is a hook that you hang a story on. And if that story has a universal appeal it doesn't really matter what the hook is. There have been Black plays that have had appeal to all audiences, White and Black alike. I played this in Hawaii. Half of my audience was not only not Jewish, they were not Caucasian. I would come out the stage door and the play has a very moving ending, and I would see these Japanese and Chinese faces being clearly moved. And I would say to them, "what does this play mean to you....Jews....Russians....what does it mean to you." And they would say, "tradition, tradition. We know what it means when children don't want to follow the tradition of their Fathers."

CJAD: Now in this day and age that brings up a very interesting point. Tradition changes as time goes on unfortunately, and in this day and age there seems to be a certain lack of tradition. Do you think that a play like FIDDLER ON THE ROOF speaks even louder then it did when it first went on the boards 30 years ago?

BIKEL: I have no doubt that it does. No doubt, because we do lament the passing of tradition and the fudging of the edges of the tradition. This play, in a very human way, brings back the fact that you don't really need modernity in order to exist totally and fully. You need a mixture of modernity and tradition.

CJAD: You get to travel around to do this play. How do the audiences differ from place to place when you do FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, or are audiences audiences everywhere?

BIKEL: Audiences are audiences and I must tell you, I've played this, for example, in El Paso, Texas. 70% of the inhabitants of El Paso, on the U.S. side, are Hispanic. We sold out every seat in the play and there was such a rapport and such a warmth of reception. You wouldn't have known we were playing to Hispanics.

CJAD: You've been acting for quite awhile. You started acting, I guess as a teenager?


CJAD: What was the attraction to acting for you.

BIKEL: It's the need and the urge to express ones self and to do it artistically. I always sang, I always acted, I always played. I tried for a short while to be an agricultural worker and I was hopelessly bored by it. To me it was meaningless. I'm sure to an agricultural worker what I do would seem meaningless, but that's the way of the world. I would stand around in heaps of manure and sings songs about the beauty of the work that I wasn't doing.

CJAD: With all the things you have've successfully gone through the various forms of entertainment from television to films to Broadway. Do you have a preference as to what you like to do?

BIKEL: I do prefer the stage. It's really the granddaddy of them all. On the stage you're there, it's live. You feel there's a beginning, there is a middle, there is an end. When something is funny you hear it right away. When something is moving you get that intake of breath and that stillness from the audience. That's all there. You do films, you always draw on your experiences with live audiences to know how to do that. Especially if you are doing comedy on films. You're working for a laugh that may or may not come six months later, but you're working basically in a vacuum at the time you are doing it.

CJAD: When you're doing a play, especially one that you are doing for a long period of time, do you find that there are new things you discover with the characters? As you say, you've played Tevye for quite some time now. Is it still fresh to you? Is there still something new you bring to the character each night you on stage?

BIKEL: The play is always fresh to me, because it's not the audience's fault that I've said the words before, or that I've sung the songs before, but there are nuances obviously, yes. But they are minutia.

CJAD: In the 30 years that the play has been on, as I said, times have changed. Has anything about the play changed, or is it just basically the same book that was written.

BIKEL: It has not changed at all.

CJAD: Not changed at all?

BIKEL: I mean, we have an old southern saying that says, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

CJAD: There are so many revivals these days on Broadway. Recently Broadway had its Tony Awards and revivals seem to be very big. Do you foresee FIDDLER ON THE ROOF heading back to Broadway.

BIKEL: I have no doubt that it will.

CJAD: Would you like to do it?

BIKEL: Oh, absolutely

CJAD: Is there any chance that that's going to be happening soon?

BIKEL: Not this calendar year, but there has been some talk about it, yes.

CJAD: You've also recorded several albums if I'm not mistaken. At least 20?

BIKEL: Yes, that's correct.

CJAD: No one seems to be able to pigeon-hole you.

BIKEL: Thank goodness that they can't. I'm versatile. To some people that seems to be a curse because it rattles them and confuses them. But it doesn't rattle or confuse me. I rather glory in the fact that I'm capable of doing more than one thing, in fact more then several and equip myself professionally of them. For one thing, I'm never stale.

CJAD: The thing though is that a lot of people...for the most part people are familiar with the mass forms of communication. Either television which brings in the largest audiences, or to a second degree film. In a lot of the character parts I've seen you portray, sometimes Theodore Bikel gets lost in character. I've seen you play Jews, South Africans, the list goes on and on and on. You get the essence of the character, but as a result, Theodore Bikel doesn't necessarily become a household name. Is that the way you like it?

BIKEL: That's fine. There are two types of actors. One is a personality actor. You take a Clark Gable and you can call him Joe Shmoe. You can call him Rhett Butler. You can call him anything you want to call him but he always walks the same, he talks the same, he looks the same and that's a personality actor. On the other hand you take an Alec Guiness and you pass him in the street and you wouldn't recognize him.

CJAD: On another note too, you're also heavily, or at least you were heavily involved in the running of actor's lives to a certain degree. You were President of Actors Equity.

BIKEL: Yes, for many years, as a matter of fact. Because I'm deeply devoted, not only to the art of acting, but also to the fate of my colleagues.

CJAD: In doing something like that, does it in any way, shape or form tarnish a little bit, when you see the politics that you have to go through in dealing with essentially what is an art?

BIKEL: I guess, if you live in the real world you have to take that as part of the price.

CJAD: Because sometimes you hear of people who have gotten involved in various unions, be it SAG or Actor's Equity or whatnot, and they seem to get lost in the politics and sometimes their own art suffers for it.

BIKEL: I never get lost in anything. I always keep, I think, a perspective.

CJAD: A very good attitude. With all you've done, is there anything you haven't done that you've longed to do?

BIKEL: Well, every actor wants to direct and I'm no exception.

CJAD: And why haven't you done it to this point?

BIKEL: I've been too busy acting.

CJAD: Well people are going to see a very busy actor when you hit the boards here at Place Des Arts in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. I'm glad I had this opportunity to speak to you.

BIKEL: I'm looking forward to it. I have very fond memories of the Place Des Arts.

CJAD: You've been here before.

BIKEL: Oh yes

CJAD: Do you get the chance to travel around to the various places you perform in, or is it just hotel, theatre, hotel, theatre?

BIKEL: No I manage. About three weeks ago we were in Calgary and it would have been a crime if I hadn't gone up to Lake Louise and to Banff. And I did.

CJAD: Well it's a nice way to see various parts of the country.


CJAD: And also a good opportunity to entertain the people who don't get a chance to go to New York or Los Angeles.

BIKEL: Exactly right, it's Mohammed and the mountain. You can't expect the entire world to come to New York to see you. You have to travel to them.

CJAD: I thank you for speaking to us and continued success with your career and also with of course FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

BIKEL: Thank you very much.

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