Some actors go down in history for one starring role, Chaim Topol among them. Topol played Tevye in the classic American musical Fiddler on the Roof.
Topol, who is Israeli, received the Israel Prize this year, Israel’s highest honor for lifetime achievement. He has performed in Fiddler more than 3500 times on stages across the world.
The 79-year-old actor, with a wave of silvery hair, looks different today than the bearded, burly Tevye he played on stage and screen. But some things haven’t changed — like his wide smile, and his deep baritone. On one recent morning in his Tel Aviv apartment, he couldn’t stop humming.
“I don’t know why I was singing,” said Topol. “I was in a good mood.”
Born in 1935 in Tel Aviv, Topol served in the Israeli army’s entertainment troupe and founded a few theaters. After he starred in the 1964 Israeli film Sallah Shabati, which was nominated for an Oscar, Topol was invited to London’s West End to audition for the role of Tevye.
At that time Topol hardly knew English. So he spent a few days memorizing some of the songs, before arriving at the audition.
“They said, ‘Ok, do whatever you feel like.’ I said, ‘I’ll sing If I Were A Rich Man.’” Topol recalled. “I was on stage for about 15 minutes. And then they said, ‘Mr. Topol, how many times did you see the show?’”
The producers hadn’t realized that Topol had the role down pat because he’d performed Tevye in Israel about 60 times — in Hebrew. The way the song “If I Were A Rich Man” is sung in Hebrew is “If I Were A Rothschild” — the way Shalom Aleichem, the Yiddish author whose stories inspired the musical, wrote it.
Topol’s father used to read him Shalom Aleichem when he was young. When he took on the role of Tevye, he found inspiration for the character in his own father.
“He loved to sing. He had a wonderful voice. He had a sense of humor, full of joy, honesty,” Topol said. “He was the person I loved more than anyone else on Earth.”
Topol has played the role of Tevye more than 3,500 times — on the West End, on Broadway, in the Hollywood film, in Australia and even in Japan, where the show is surprisingly popular.
“Why? Well, I asked why,” Topol said. “The real reason is that 50 percent of the marriages in Japan are arranged marriages.”
Fiddler on the Roof, after all, tells the story of a Jewish milkman whose daughters' wish to marry men they fall in love with, instead of depending on the village matchmaker. In one scene, Russian villagers ransack a Jewish wedding in an anti-Jewish pogrom.
The show, Topol said, is a perfect match wherever it’s shown.
“When the Turks are watching the show and see the pogrom in the wedding, they are sure that these are the Greeks” attacking the Turks, Topol said. “When the Greeks see the show, they are the sure the Turks are spoiling the wedding. I mean, it’s a good piece that speaks to everyone wherever he lives.”
When he is not acting, Topol is a portrait artist. He showed me his sketches of Sammy Davis Jr., Edith Piaf, Kirk Douglas and Danny Kaye — celebrities he has known throughout his career.
He is also the founder of the Jordan River Village, where Israeli children with serious illnesses gather to have fun. It features a wheelchair accessible zip line and a new therapeutic theater program.
“You see the smiles all over the faces,” Topol said. “Then they start dancing, and then they start singing, and then they start laughing.”
Even now, Topol is still in demand to play Tevye. He said has been invited to reprise his role again in Australia and London.
“Why not?” Topol said. “I’m only 80.”
By now, it’s, well, tradition.