Topol, Star of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ on the Screen and the Stage, Dies at 87

Topol, the Israeli actor who in his late 20s took on the role of the patriarch Tevye — the soulful shtetl milkman at the center of “Fiddler on the Roof” — and reprised the role for decades, has died. He was 87.

His death was announced by President Isaac Herzog of Israel on Twitter on Thursday. Mr. Herzog did not give a time or cause of death.

Topol — born Chaim Topol, he used only his surname throughout much of his professional life — came to wide international renown as the star of the 1971 film version of “Fiddler.” Its director, Norman Jewison, had chosen Topol, then a little-known stage actor, over Zero Mostel, who had created the part on Broadway.

The film, for which Topol earned an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe Award, made him a star. For much of the late 20th century he would be, in the words of The Jerusalem Post in 2012, “Israel’s most famous export since the Jaffa orange.”

Topol reprised Tevye in stage productions worldwide for decades, including a 1990 Broadway revival for which he received a Tony nomination. By 2009, he had, by his own estimate, played the character more than 3,500 times.

His other film appearances include the title role in “Galileo,” the director Joseph Losey’s 1975 adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s stage play; “Flash Gordon” (1980), in which he portrayed the scientist Hans Zarkov; and the James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only” (1981), starring Roger Moore, in which he played the Greek smuggler Milos Columbo.

On television, he played the Polish Jew Berel Jastrow in the 1983 mini-series “The Winds of War,” reprising the role for its sequel, “War and Remembrance,” broadcast from 1988 to 1989.

But it was indisputably for Tevye — the weary, tradition-bound Everyman who argues with God, bemoans his lot as the penurious father of five daughters and lives increasingly warily amid the pogroms of early-20th-century Czarist Russia — that Topol remained best known.

“Like Yul Brynner in ‘The King and I’ and Rex Harrison in ‘My Fair Lady,’ Topol has become almost synonymous with his character,” the news service United Press International said in 1989.Over the years, Topol was asked repeatedly whether he ever tired of playing the role.

“Let’s face it, it’s one of the best parts ever written for a male actor in the musical theater,” he told The Boston Globe in 1989, when he had played Tevye a mere 700 times or so. “It takes you to a wide range of emotions, happiness to sadness, anger to love.”

Throughout his many Tevyes, some critics taxed Topol’s acting as larger than life to the point of self-parody. But most praised his soulful mien and resonant bass baritone, heard in enduring numbers like “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Tradition” and “Sunrise, Sunset.”

By the time Mr. Jewison began work on his film, Tevye was one of the most coveted roles in Hollywood. The Broadway show, based on stories by the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem — with book by Joseph Stein, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and music by Jerry Bock — had been a smash hit since it opened in 1964. It won nine Tony Awards, including best musical, best direction of a musical (for Jerome Robbins) and, for Mr. Mostel, best actor in a musical.

“The casting of it was the most agonizing thing I ever went through,” Mr. Jewison told NPR in 2001.

Besides Mr. Mostel, aspirants to the screen role included Rod Steiger, Danny Kaye and — in a scenario that can be contemplated only with difficulty — Frank Sinatra.

Mr. Jewison’s casting choice was all the more striking in that Topol had not wanted the part in the first place.

Chaim Topol was born in Tel Aviv on Sept. 9, 1935. His parents, Jacob, a plasterer, and Rel Goldman Topol, a seamstress, had fled shtetlach in Eastern Europe to settle in Palestine in the early 1930s. There, Jacob Topol became a member of the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization.

As a youth, Chaim studied commercial art and trained for a career as a printer. But in 1953, while he was serving in the Israeli Army, an officer overheard him regaling fellow recruits with jokes. He was placed in an army entertainment unit and found his calling there.

He spent the next few years touring Israel with the group, entertaining soldiers with songs like “Sprinkler Hora,” a hit in the fledgling state, where making the desert bloom was a national imperative.

Discharged in 1956, Topol settled with members of his unit on a kibbutz, where they formed a satirical theater group, Batzal Yarok, or Green Onion. Its members worked on the land two days a week and onstage for four.

“It was great training because we had a very difficult, tired audience,” Topol told U.P.I. for the 1989 article. “Most of them had been out running tractors and such before performances.”

He was later a founder of the Haifa Municipal Theater, where his roles included Petruchio in Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew,” Azdak in Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle” and Jean in Eugène Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros.”

Topol’s first significant international exposure came in the title role of the 1964 Israeli film “Sallah,” which was also titled “Sallah Shabati.” One of the first film comedies to come out of Israel, it told the tale of a family of Mizrahi Jews — Jews historically from the Middle East and North Africa — uneasily resettled in Israel.

“Sallah” won the Golden Globe for best foreign-language film; Topol, then in his late 20s, won the Golden Globe for most promising male newcomer for his portrayal of Sallah Shabati, the family patriarch, a man in his 60s.

On the strength of that performance, he was asked to play Tevye in a Hebrew-language production of “Fiddler” in Tel Aviv. Unfamiliar with the show, he went to New York to see Mr. Mostel on Broadway.

“Zero was going wild,” he recalled in a 2008 interview with The Telegraph, a British newspaper. “I didn’t know what to do with myself. I telegrammed back saying there was no way I wanted to be connected to that show.”

But on returning to Israel, Topol saw the Tel Aviv production and had a change of heart. He eventually replaced the actor portraying Tevye and played the role for about a year.

Around that time, the first London production of “Fiddler” was being cast. Someone suggested that the old Jewish actor who had played Sallah Shabati might be a worthy Tevye, and they summoned him to England. When Topol, barely 30, walked into the theater, producers thought they had invited the wrong man. But since he had made the long trip, they relented and let him audition anyway.

Topol, who by his own account, knew “about 50 words of English” then, had learned the songs phonetically from the Broadway cast album. He further impressed the producers with his ability to age 25 years simply through the rigorous control of his carriage.

“At 29, I knew I had to restrain some muscles to make sure I didn’t suddenly jump in a way that destroyed the image of an elderly man,” he told The Boston Globe in 2009, in the midst of a multicity United States tour of the show. “I walked slower, made sure I wasn’t too erect when I danced. It was quite a job. Now, as I pass the age of 55 by 20 years, I feel totally free to jump and dance as much as I feel like.”

Topol opened in London in February 1967 to glowing notices. By then he had jettisoned his first name: The English, he discovered, were flummoxed by the guttural consonant of “Chaim” and pronounced his name “Shame” as often as not.

In June, with Israel fighting the Six-Day War, he left the production to return home, where he entertained the troops. (He would make a similar decision in 1991, with the outbreak of the Persian Gulf war, leaving the Broadway revival to be with his family in Tel Aviv.)

After seeing the London “Fiddler,” Mr. Jewison made the unexpected decision to cast Topol, still a relative unknown in the United States, in the motion picture.

“I wanted a third-generation European actor for the role, a third-generation man who understood the background,” Mr. Jewison told The Globe in 1971. “I did not want a Second Avenue version of Tevye” — a barely veiled swipe at Mr. Mostel and his unstoppable shtick.

Topol, who underwent two hours of age makeup every day of the shoot — Mr. Jewison did his bit, contributing white hairs from his beard to be glued over his star’s dark eyebrows — made, in the view of many critics, a most persuasive Tevye.

Reviewing the film in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote of him:

“He’s a rough presence, masculine, with burly, raw strength, but also sensual and warm. He’s a poor man but he’s not a little man, he’s a big man brought low — a man of Old Testament size brought down by the circumstances of oppression.”

Topol was the author of two books, the memoir “Topol by Topol” (1981) and “Topol’s Treasury of Jewish Humor, Wit, and Wisdom” (1994).

His laurels included the Israel Prize, the country’s highest cultural honor, which he received in 2015. The recognition came both for his acting and his charitable work, notably helping to found Jordan River Village, a holiday camp in Israel for seriously ill children from all ethnic and religious backgrounds. Modeled on Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut, it opened in 2011.

Year in and year out, Topol found the role he knew best to be a source of continuing illumination.

“I did ‘Fiddler’ a long time thinking that this was a story about the Jewish people,” he said in a 2009 interview. “But now I’ve been performing all over the world. And the fantastic thing is wherever I’ve been — India, Japan, England, Greece, Egypt — people come up to me after the show and say, ‘This is our story as well.’”

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