Chaim Topol, Tevye the Milkman in ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ Dies at 87
Chaim Topol, the spirited Israeli actor and singer who, one season following another, portrayed Tevye the milkman in Fiddler on the Roof on stages all around the world and in an Oscar-nominated turn in Norman Jewison’s 1971 film adaptation, has died. He was 87.
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The Associated Press, citing Israeli leaders, reported that Topol died Thursday in Tel Aviv.
Israel’s first international movie star, Topol also played famed Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei in Galileo (1975); an American scientist, Dr. Hans Zarkov, in the cult sci-fi classic Flash Gordon (1980); and Milos Columbo, a Greek smuggler and ally of Roger Moore’s James Bond, in For Your Eyes Only (1981).
As Polish family man Berel Jastrow, he was central to the plot of two acclaimed 1980s ABC miniseries, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, both based on Herman Wouk novels.
In a pairing that a matchmaker would surely appreciate, Topol by his own estimation connected with Tevye more than 3,500 times over more than four decades, starting with a Hebrew-language production in his home country when he was 30.
He also starred as the Jewish dairyman and father of five daughters — and performed such signature songs as “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Tradition” and “If I Were a Rich Man” — on the West End in the mid-1960s and on Broadway in 1990-91, receiving a Tony nomination in the process.
“How many people are known for one part? How many people in my profession are known worldwide? So, I am not complaining,” he said in a 2015 interview. “Sometimes I am surprised when I come to China or when I come to Tokyo or when I come to France or when I come wherever and the clerk at the immigration says, ‘Topol, Topol, are you Topol?’ So yes, many people saw it [Fiddler], and it is not a bad thing.”
The oldest of three kids, Chaim Topol was born in Tel Aviv on Sept. 9, 1935. His father, Jacob, was a plasterer, and his mother, Imrela, a seamstress. He worked as a printer for a newspaper while taking high school classes at night, then lived on a kibbutz for a year.
He gained experience as an entertainer in the Israeli army, where he acted and sang in a traveling theatrical troupe. After the service, he honed his skills performing around the country for three years in a kibbutz theater group that he and his friends had founded in 1957.
Topol had a major breakthrough when he was cast as a Middle Eastern immigrant struggling to fend for his family in Israel in Sallah Shabati (1964). A huge hit at home, the social satire was nominated for the Oscar for best foreign-language film, and Topol, then 29, received a Golden Globe for most promising male newcomer for playing a character in his 50s. (Topol had performed the title role in a play while in the army.)
Two years later, he made his English-language film debut alongside Kirk Douglas in Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), playing a Bedouin leader in the drama set amid the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
At the urging of friends, Topol came to New York to see Zero Mostel star as Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye in the original 1964-72 Broadway production of Hal Prince’s Fiddler on the Roof, featuring music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins. He then played the milkman for 10 weeks in Israel, stepping in for Shmuel Rodensky, who had taken ill.
Prince had seen Topol in Sallah Shabati and invited him to test for the lead in the London production of Fiddler as it moved from Broadway in 1966.
“They could not believe it was me when I went to the audition because I was too young! They expected Sallah, who was old. Not me!” he said. “I knew no English. I studied the songs. I sang ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ and then another song from Fiddler. It was the first audition in my life.
“They asked how many times I had seen the show. I said maybe four times. They couldn’t understand how I knew all the movements, all the songs from the show. I said, ‘No, you don’t understand … I’m currently performing in Fiddler, in Tel Aviv!”
After he was hired, he began to go by Topol after the British producers had trouble pronouncing his first name.
He landed the lead in Jewison’s film version at United Artists despite lobbying by Mostel, Rod Steiger, Danny Kaye and Frank Sinatra to play the part. He was hired “probably because I was cheaper,” he told The Jerusalem Post in 2013.
In its review, THR noted that Topol imbued his performance “with all the compassion, intensity and rough humor it requires. His speaking voice is magnificent, and if his singing voice is imperfect, this only seems appropriate to the characterization.”
Fiddler on the Roof was nominated for best picture and Topol for best actor, but The French Connection and its star Gene Hackman prevailed on Oscar night. Topol, however, did receive a Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy or musical.
His big-screen résumé also included Before Winter Comes (1968) and a turn opposite Mia Farrow in The Public Eye (1972), directed by Carol Reed.
Topol last portrayed Tevye on a Boston stage in 2009 but was forced to exit the musical after suffering a shoulder injury.
A year later, he founded the Jordan River Village, where children with serious illnesses come to have fun. (His inspiration was Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall camps.) He was also a member of the board of directors of Variety Israel, a nonprofit organization that assists kids with special needs, regardless of religion, race and gender.
He received the prestigious Israel Prize for lifetime achievement from his government in 2015.
Survivors include his wife, Galia, whom he married in October 1956. They had three children, Omer, Adi and Anat.
This article originally appeared in THR.com.