Born May 24 1924 in Vienna, Theodore Bikel was thirteen when he and his parents left Austria for Palestine. Fluent in Hebrew, Yiddish, and German with a respectable command of English and French, he intended to study and eventually teach comparative linguistics. But the pull of the theatre was stronger and he joined the internationally famous Habimah Theatre in 1943 as an apprentice actor. A year later he became one of the co-founders of the Israeli Chamber Theatre (the “Cameri”).
In 1946 Bikel entered London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art from which he graduated with honors two years later. It was also at this time that he began to develop a serious interest in the guitar and folk music.
But he was first to make his mark as an actor. Sir Laurence Olivier was so impressed with Bikel’s performance in several small London theatre productions that he offered him a role in his production of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Vivien Leigh. Bikel soon took over the second male lead, Mitch, in the play.
From Streetcar on, Theodore Bikel’s career has been illuminated by superior stage and screen portrayals. In London he won acclaim playing the Russian Colonel in Ustinov’s The Love Of Four Colonels and on Broadway his roster of memorable performances includes Tonight In Samarkand, The Rope Dancers, The Lark and the original Broadway production of The Sound Of Music in which he created the role of Baron von Trapp. Nationally he starred in a number of other plays, including tours of Zorba and Fiddler on the Roof. After having played the role of Tevye over 2,000 times since 1967 Bikel’s Tevye continues to garner the highest praise from audiences and critics nation-wide whenever he repeats the role.
Theodore Bikel was co-creator, co-author and co-star of a new show entitled Sholom Aleichem Lives, performed in early 1997 in various Florida theatres.
Among Bikel’s most well-known screen roles are the Southern Sheriff in The Defiant Ones (1958) (for which he received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor), The African Queen (1951), The Little Kidnappers (1953), My Fair Lady (1964), The Blue Angel (1959), The Enemy Below (1957), The Little Ark (1970), The Dog of Flanders (1958), I Want to Live (1958), The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1965), See You in the Morning (1989), Shattered (1991), Crisis in the Kremlin (1992), Benefit of the Doubt (1992), and Shadow Conspiracy (1996).
In these and numerous other roles Bikel’s flexibility of characterization is amply demonstrated: A Chinese crook, a Scottish police officer, an American university dean, A Russian submarine skipper, a Czech MVD officer, a Jewish refugee, a Greek peanut vendor, a Hindu doctor, an Austrian nobleman and a Hungarian linguist, among others.
Mr. Bikel has also appeared in opera productions: La Gazza Ladra, Philadelphia Opera Company (1989); The Abduction from the Seraglio, Cleveland Opera Company (1992), Ariadne auf Naxos , Los Angeles Opera Company (1992), and Die Fledermaus, Yale Opera Company (1998).
Bikel, who has starred in virtually every top dramatic show on television in the United States as well as in Canada and England, has repeatedly been nominated for “Emmy” awards and received an Emmy in 1988 for his portrayal of Harris Newmark, one of the early immigrant pioneers of the West Coast.
As an author and raconteur, Bikel wrote and starred in NBC-TV’s The Eternal Light, for CBS-TV’s Look Up And Live and ABC-TV’s Directions. His 90 -minute television special One Night Stand and his weekly radio program At Home With Theodore Bikel enjoyed national syndication. The author of Folksongs And Footnotes (published in the Sixties and about to be re-issued), Bikel is a frequent contributor to various journals and publications. His autobiography entitled “Theo” was re-released in 2002 by University of Wisconsin Press.
One of the world’s best-known folk singers and a founder in 1961 of the Newport Folk Festival, the multi-faceted entertainer maintains an active concert schedule throughout the United States and abroad, with some 50 to 60 concerts per year, performing alone or with large symphony orchestras. He has recorded 16 albums for Elektra Records, an album of contemporary songs for Reprise Records entitled A New Day, in addition to cast albums of The Sound of Music and The King and I as well as a children’s album For the Young and Silent No More, an album of Soviet Jewish freedom songs smuggled out of the the USSR. In addition, he has participated with various groups in recorded projects such as The Fifth Cup, The Passover Story and The Chanukkah Story.
Theodore Bikel has made many audio recordings of books-on-tape both copntemporary and classics, among them the two latest Herman Wouk novels The Hope and The Glory, as well as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose . He has also recorded the Tevye stories of Sholom Aleichem, all of the above for Audio Renaissance as well as Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s “O Jerusalem.”
Active for many years in the civil rights movement, Bikel was also an elected delegate to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. He formerly held the position of Senior Vice President of the American Jewish Congress, he served as President of the Actors’ Equity Association (1973-82), as a Vice President of the International Federation of Actors (FIA), (1981-1991), as a Board Member of Amnesty International (USA), and, by Presidential appointment, as a member of the National Council on the Arts (1977-82). He is currently the President of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America (4A’s).
In addition to the many honors and awards he has received over the years, Theodore Bikel was awarded honorary degrees of Doctor of Fine Arts from the University of Hartford in 1992, Doctor of Humane Letters from Seton Hall University in 2001 and Doctor of Humane Letters from Hebrew Union College in 2005. On July 4, 2006 in Moscow, Russia, The World Union for Progressive Judaism conferred upon Theo the title of MAGGID.
An American citizen since 1961, Theodore Bikel lives in California and Connecticut. He and his wife and have two sons, Robert and Daniel, who live in Los Angeles and Westchester, NY, respectively.
Theodore Bikel is a Renaissance Man, a concerned human being who works in the arts. He views his work and his life in terms of survival. “I am engaged in an anti-Phoenix crusade. Many people these days insist that their birth was like the birth of the Phoenix; suddenly one day they sprang out in middle of the desert, without memory or parentage.” Bikel maintains that is quite impossible. “You must explore your roots in the past in order to pinpoint your place in the present or to be entitled to a future. It doesn’t work any other way.”
To define versatility is to capture the essence of Theodore Bikel. For, in his own words, he is not a “specialist but a general practitioner in the world of the arts.” This is reflected in his multiplicity of talents: Bikel the actor on stage, screen and television; Bikel the folksinger and guitarist; Bikel the author, lecturer and raconteur; and Bikel the activist and arts advocate.
Musician and Legendary Folk Singer
Mr. Bikel made his concert debut at the Carnegie Recital Hall in 1956 in a folk song program; each year subsequently he has appeared in concerts throughout the U.S.A., Canada, and Europe. He has also appeared in concert in Israel, New Zealand, and Australia. Besides frequent appearances with symphony appearances with symphony orchestras in varied programs, he has also performed in the more intimate surroundings of some of the nation’s well-known clubs. Mr. Bikel has recorded 20 record albums mostly for the Elektra label in addition to a few releases on Columbia, Peter Pan, and Reprise. He is also an accomplished translator of song lyrics.
Theodore Bikel was a co-founder of the Newport Folk Festival.
Mr. Bikel’s book Folksongs and Footnotes, published by Meridian Books (World Publishing) in 1961 had 3 reprint editions.
- Gate of Horn, Chicago
- Cellar Door, Washington, D.C.
- El Patio, Mexico City
- St. Regis Hotel Maisonette, New York
- Bottom Line, New York
- The Boarding House, San Francisco
- Academy of Music Cabaret Theatre, Philadelphia
- George’s, Chicago
- Rainbow & Stars, New York
- Trump Plaza, Atlantic City
Song Arrangements & Compositions (BMI):
- 4 original songs for the film My Side of the Mountain
- Numerous arrangements & adaptations of songs, see Folksongs & Footnotes, Meridian Books. © 1961 Nina Music.
- Tel Aviv, lyrics (music Michael Isaacson, ASCAP)
- Hartford Symphony Orchestra
- Denver Symphony Orchestra
- Miami Beach Symphony Orchestra
- Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
- Tulsa Symphony Orchestra
- Tri-City Symphony, Davenport, Iowa
- National Symphony Orchestra, Washington, D.C.
- Vancouver Symphony Orchestra
- Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
- Los Angeles Philharmonic
- Syracuse Symphony Orchestra
- Oakland Symphony Orchestra
- Orlando Symphony Orchestra
- St. Paul Symphony Orchestra
- Mansfield Symphony Orchestra, Ohio
- Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
- Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
- South Florida Pops
- Israel Pops, U.S.A.
- North Carolina Symphony
- Danville Symphony Orchestra, IL
- Lima Symphony Orchestra, OH
- St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
- Jewish Symphony
- Pittsburgh Symphony
Special Works Performed With Orchestras:
- Peter and the Wolf – Prokofiev
- The Poetry & Prophesy of the Old Testament – Seltzer
- King David – Honegger
- Survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto – Schoenberg
- Lincoln Portrait – Copeland
- 1989 La Gazza Ladra Philadelphia Opera Company
- 1992 The Abduction from the Seraglio Cleveland Opera Company
- 1992 Ariadne auf Naxos Los Angeles Opera Company
- 1998 Die Fledermaus Yale Opera Company
- 1955 Israeli Folk Songs, Elektra
- 1958 An Actor’s Holiday, Elektra
- 1958 Folk Songs of Israel, Elektra
- 1958 A Young Man and a Maid (with Cynthia Gooding), Elektra
- 1958 Theodore Bikel Sings Jewish Folk Songs, Elektra
- 1958 Songs of a Russian Gypsy, Elektra
- 1959 Folk Songs from Just about Everywhere (with Geula Gill), Elektra
- 1959 More Jewish Folk Songs, Elektra
- 1959 Bravo Bikel! (Live From Carnegie Hall), Elektra
- 1960 Songs of Russia Old and New, Elektra
- 1960 The Sound of Music (Original Broadway Cast), Columbia Records
- 1961 From Bondage to Freedom, Elektra
- 1962 A Harvest of Israeli Folk Songs, Elektra
- 1962 The Poetry and Prophesy of The Old Testament, Elektra
- 1962 The Best of Bikel, Elektra
- 1963 Theodore Bikel on Tour, Elektra
- 1964 A Folksinger’s Choice, Elektra
- 1964 The King and I, Columbia Records
- 1967 Yiddish Theatre and Folk Songs, Elektra
- 1967 Songs of the Earth (with The Pennywhistlers), Elektra
- 1968 Theodore Bikel Is Tevye, Elektra
- 1970 A New Day, Reprise Records
- 1972 Silent No More (Soviet Jewish Underground), Star Records
- 1973 Theodore Bikel for the Young, Peter Pan Records
- 1987 Theodore Bikel Sings Jewish Holiday Songs
- 1991 Yiddish Theatre & Folk Songs – CD – Bainbridge Records
- 1991 A Passover Story – Western Wind
- 1992 A Chanukkah Story – Western Wind
- 1992 Songs of a Russian Gypsy – CD – Bainbridge Records
- 1992 Theodore Bikel Sings Jewish Folk Songs – CD – Bainbridge Records
- 1992 Theodore Bikel Sings More Jewish Folk Songs – CD – Bainbridge Records
- 1996 Rise up and Fight–Songs of Jewish Partisans – CD – US Holocaust Museum
- 1998 A Taste of Passover – CD – Rounder Records
- 2000 A Taste of Chanukkah – CD – Rounder Records
- 2006 In My Own Lifetime – CD – Jewish Music Group
- 2007 Our Song (with Alberto Mizrahi) – CD – Jewish Music
The Stage Actor
Picking a preference is surely a daunting task for a multi-faceted, multitalented person like Theodore Bikel. Yet it is true that theatre was not only Bikel’s first love among all the performing arts but that it has also continued to occupy a special place in his affections over his many years as a performer.
His professional life started in 1943 with his apprenticeship at the Habimah Theatre, Tel Aviv. Interestingly, his first professional role was a small part in the dramatic play Tevye, The Milkman which later furnished the inspiration for Fiddler on the Roof. He became a co-founder of the Cameri Theatre, playing classical and modern drama in Hebrew. But with the end of the war, the outside world beckoned and he decided on further study at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Having graduated with honors from RADA, he
proceeded to roles in London’s West End, the mecca of all English actors. Sir Laurence Olivier cast him in a small supporting role in Streetcar Named Desire, starring Vivien Leigh. But Olivier also gave him the understudy to the two male leads. Theodore Bikel played both roles at various times and eventually was asked to take over the second male lead, Mitch, a few months into the run.
Stage roles followed in quick succession, the most notable a long run in Peter Ustinov’s The Love of Four Colonels. In 1954 while appearing in the West End play Dear Charles, Theodore Bikel received an invitation to appear on Broadway in a play starring Louis Jourdan entitled Tonight in Samarkand.
From then on it was the American theatre to which he committed his energy, both on and off stage. It was his devotion to the theatre and to all who toil in it which caused him to be involved with Actors’ Equity, the union of stage performers which he served as vice president and then as president until 1982. Professionally Broadway theatre saw him in The Lark, The Rope Dancers and, most prominently in the world premiere of The Sound of Music in which he created the role of Captain von Trapp.
Despite a flurry of film and TV commitments, Bikel managed to keep a steady and varied theatre career going. Highlights were Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Zorba, The Rothschilds, The Good Doctor, The Inspector General, She Loves Me, and others. But the role he has been most identified with ever since 1967 is Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, which by last count he has played more often than any actor -over 2000 times!
It is no exaggeration to say that theatre occupies the central place in Theodore Bikel’s life. Summing up his attitude toward life and theatre, he stated to a group of students; “In all my long years, hardly a day has gone by when I have not thanked providence for allowing me to escape from the absurd artificiality of everyday living into the reality of theatre.”
A partial list of plays and musicals follows.
- Tevye, The Milkman
- A Servant of Two Masters
- Insect Play
- Blood Wedding
- Charley’s Aunt
- She Stoops To Conquer
- Twelfth Night
- St. Joan
- Shop at Sly Corner
- It’s Hard to Be a Jew
- The Thistle and The Rose
- Ten Little Indians
- You Can’t Take It with You
- A Streetcar Named Desire
- The Love of Four Colonels
- Dear Charles
- Tonight in Samarkand
- The Lark
- The Rope Dancers
- The Sound of Music
- Fiddler on the Roof
- The Rothschilds
- Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
- The Good Doctor
- I Do, I Do
- The Sunshine Boys
- The Inspector General
- Threepenny Opera
- My Fair Lady
- She Loves Me
- Sholom Aleichem Lives
- The Disputation
- The Gathering
Prolific and Renowned Film Actor
Mr. Bikel made his film debut in The African Queen (1951) concurrently with his career on the London stage. This was followed by a number of roles in British and films shot in England and on the Continent. In America his motion picture career encompassed such varying roles as the French general in The Pride and the Passion, the Russian Colonel in Fraülein, the psychiatrist in I Want To Live and the Southern Sheriff in The Defiant Ones which earned him an Academy Award nomination.
Other film roles followed: The impresario and owner of The Blue Angel, the Hungarian language expert (‘the hairy hound from Budapest’) in MyFair Lady, the submarine captain in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, the Indian doctor in The Sands of the Kalahari, the American folklorist in My Side of the Mountain, the Greek collaborator in The Angry Hills, the philosopher pal in Darker Than Amber, the Dutch sea captain in The Little Ark, the rock group manager in Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels, among many others.
In all, Mr. Bikel has appeared in over thirty motion pictures. Some of his film engagements over the past few years (given scheduling constraints due to concert and theatre bookings) were in Alan Pakula’s See You in the Morning
, Wolfgang Peterson’s Shattered, Crisis in the Kremlin, Benefit of the Doubt, a remake of Crime and Punishment, and Shadow Conspiracy.
As is evident from the array of film roles, Theodore Bikel is not only a gifted actor but an accomplished linguist and dialectician as well. He speaks seven languages and masters innumerable dialects.
Motion Pictures (in chronological order):
- The African Queen (1951)
- Desparate Moment (1951)
- Moulin Rouge (1951)
- Melba (1952)
- A Day to Remember (1953)
- The Colditz Story (1953)
- Never Let Me Go (1953)
- The Love Lottery (1953)
- The Little Kidnappers (1953)
- Forbidden Cargo (1954)
- The Vintage (1957)
- I Bury the Living (1957)
- The Pride and the Passion (1957)
- The Enemy Below (1957)
- Fraülein (1958)
- The Defiant Ones (1958) [Academy Award Nomination in the Best Supporting Category]
- I Want To Live (1958)
- Dog of Flanders (1958)
- A Woman Obsessed (1959)
- The Blue Angel (1959)
- The Angry Hills (1959)
- My Fair Lady (1964)
- The Sands of the Kalahari (1965)
- The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1965)
- The Desperate Ones (1966)
- Sweet November (1967)
- My Side of the Mountain (1967)
- Darker Than Amber (1969)
- The Little Ark (1970)
- 200 Motels (1971)
- Prince Jack (1983)
- Very Close Quarters (1985)
- Dark Tower (1987)
- See You in the Morning (1989)
- Shattered (1991)
- Crisis in the Kremlin (1992)
- Benefit of the Doubt (1992)
- Family Jewels (1992)
- Crime and Punishment (1993)
- Shadow Conspiracy (1995)
- Second Chances (1997)