July 30, 2015 By Jack Jodell.
“It cannot be allowed that billionaires can fill their pockets while hungry babies cry.”
– Theo Bikel, 2014 –
Our world lost a most remarkable and gifted man this past July 21 when Theo Bikel passed away of natural causes at the age of 91. This multi-talented Austrian-American actor, musician, composer, folk singer, and political activist delighted audiences since he first appeared on the stage as Tevye the Milkman in Tel Aviv back in the late 1930s. Born Theodore Meir Bikel in 1924 to a Jewish family living in Vienna, he was immersed in both politics and the arts from a very early age. His father was an active Zionist, and his family were forced by circumstances to emigrate to Palestine once the Nazis took over Austria in the Anschluss of 1938. He studied acting later on at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and made his London stage debut in 1948. In 1951 he made his film debut in The African Queen, playing opposite the Hollywood heavyweights Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. A huge number of successful film appearances followed, among which were Moulin Rouge; The Colditz Story; The Defiant Ones; My Fair Lady; The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming; My Side of the Mountain; 200 Motels; Crime and Punishment, plus a great many others, as well as guest starring in dozens of TV shows, including The Twilight Zone; Gunsmoke; Wagon Train; Hawaii Five-O; Charlie’s Angels; All in the Family, Knight Rider, Murder She Wrote, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and many, many more. Due to the fact that he was fluent in an astounding 21 different languages, Bikel was often cast in the role of some type of foreigner.
Theo Bikel became a noted folk singer with the release of his first record album, Folk Songs of Israel, in 1955. He followed this album with more than 20 others into the first decade of this century. A long time friend of veteran folk singer Pete Seeger, Bikel was an early admirer of Bob Dylan, He insisted that Dylan accompany he and Seeger to a late 1963 folk festival in Greenwood, Mississippi. He told Dylan’s manager, “Buy him a ticket. Don’t tell him where it came from. Tell him it’s time to go down and experience the South.”
Bikel was a long time civil and human rights activist. Having fled Nazi persecution in the 1930s, he saw injustice firsthand and fought it for the rest of his life. He was an early supporter and campaigner for John F. Kennedy. He attended the fateful 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago as a delegate favoring the peace platform and sat beside fellow folk singer Judy Collins there. He sang a song critical of then-Chicago mayor Richard Daley in public, but was miraculously never assaulted by the very hostile Chicago police. Having lived in Israel during his teens, he has always supported her over the years, but has not hesitated for even one moment to criticize the Jewish State when he believed her actions to be wrong. Not too long ago, he responded to Israeli excesses in the occupation of Palestine by launching a heartfelt appeal, saying , “I want to ask you to help prevent a terrible tragedy. I’ve spent much of my life playing Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. I see a parallel with what is happening today. Forty thousand Bedouins in the Negev desert are being told to get out of their homes. Remember the scene in Fiddler on the Roof when the Russians arrive and tell them they have three days to get out. Tevye says, ‘Why should I get out?’ They said, ‘Not just you. All of you.’ They said, ‘Why? Why should we leave?’ ‘I don’t know why. I have an order here.’ It’s a piece of paper, and ‘Get thee out.’ ‘What if we refuse to leave?’ We know the consequences of refusal…’there is a human equation here, and it has to do with the basic humanity of human beings who are nominally free to pursue whatever it is that their faith tells them to do, people who lived on the land for centuries, long before there was even a state of Israel, who all of a sudden are being told to get out, to be relocated, an agrarian society that is forced into sometimes urban ghettos. It seems less than just. The point is that these are not simple questions, and complicated questions very often ask for complicated answers. But one thing that is absolutely clear in my mind is that human beings cannot be treated like cattle. Human beings must be given the dignity and the respect that all human beings deserve, especially by a people who themselves—Jews—have experienced such deprivation in the past. So when I say that the very people who were told to get out of Anatevka in the fictional village of Fiddler on the Roof, the descendants of those very people are now telling others, strangers in their midst, that they must get out of their homes, seems fundamentally wrong. And a wrong cannot be allowed to stand.”
The fictional Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, whom Bikel played on stage more than 2,000 times over many decades, used to sing “If I were a rich man…” With all he experienced in his 91 years, and with his tremendous understanding of, and empathy for, all human beings, it is clear that Theo Bikel was indeed a very rich man. Furthermore, he enriched all of our lives by having lived among us. We have lost a giant of a man. May he rest in eternal peace.
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