8 Fascinating Facts About the Actor Who Breathed Life into Fiddler on the Roof’s Tevye on the Stage and Big Screen
Chaim Topol, the Israeli actor who portrayed Fiddler on the Roof’s Tevye on stage for decades and in the 1971 movie adaption, died on March 8 in Tel Aviv. His son, Omar, confirmed his father died of Alzheimer’s disease with the New York Times. His wife, two daughters, two sisters, and nine grandchildren also survive him.
Most Fiddler fans know Topol’s rendition of the song “If I Were a Rich Man” from the film with boisterous arm-shaking and baritone voice: “If I were a rich man/Yubby dibby, dibby, dibby, dibby, dibby, dibby, dum…”
Tevye also spoke to God about his predicaments concerning the marriages of three of his five daughters, wrestled with the concept of Jewish traditions, leaned on Biblical philosophy, and was patriarch of his family as a milkman in the small, Jewish, Ukrainian village of Anatevka. Topol and Fiddler have touched the hearts of fans for many generations.
To preserve Topol’s legacy, here are eight fascinating facts that you may not have known about him.
1. Had Limited English During First Tevye Audition
Topol knew little English when auditioning for Tevye. He had learned the songs phonetically from the Fiddler Broadway cast album and was tutored by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s voice coach Cicely Berry. He first played Tevye in Fiddler’s 1967 London premiere.
2. Played Tevye as a Young Man
We all know Tevye as an older gentleman in his late fifties or so, but Topol was in his late twenties when he first played the main character in Fiddler’s 1967 London premiere. Topol was in his later thirties for the film adaptation. He knew how to restrain his muscles and move like an old man, which impressed many producers during his audition.
Fiddler film director Norman Jewison picked Topol over Zero Mostel, who played Tevye in the 1964 Broadway premiere of the musical, for the 1971 film.
3. Served in the Israeli Army
Born in Tel Aviv, Israel, Topol was enlisted in the Israeli Army in the early 1950s. In 1953, he told jokes to fellow recruits and was placed in an army entertainment unit until his discharge in 1956. He served in the army again during the 1967 Six-Day War and 1973 Yom Kippur War.
4. Self-Estimated That He Played Tevye About 3,500 Times
Topol estimated that he played his iconic character 3,500 times. He appeared in numerous London Fiddler productions and toured the U.S., Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand from the 80s to the late 2000s with his final performance in Boston, Massachusetts on November 15, 2009. Critics and fans adored how he kept the character fresh and entertaining.
5. Wrote Two Books
Although people knew Topol as an actor, he also wrote a few books. He penned and published a memoir Topol by Topol in September 1981. He also wrote Topol’s Treasury of Jewish Humor, Wit and Wisdom to showcase the funny and knowledgeable sides of Jewish life, tradition, and lore.
6. Played Other Roles
Besides Tevye, Topol played other movie and TV characters, though not as memorable as the singing milkman from Anatevka.
He was Janovic, a Russian deserter posing as a Slavic interpreter in Before Winter Comes; Galileo in the film version of Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo; Dr. Hans Zarkov in Flash Gordon; Greek smuggler Milos Columbo with Roger Moore’s James Bond in For Your Eyes Only; Berel Jastrow, a Polish Jew in The Winds of War 1983 miniseries and the sequel, War and Remembrance.
7. Helped Found Jordan River Village
People may also remember Topol for his big heart on and off stage. He helped launch the Jordan River Village, a holiday camp in Galilee, Israel for chronically ill children of all ethnic and religious backgrounds, in 2012. The camp resembles Paul Newman’s Connecticut Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.
8. Used Surname Professionally
According to his New York Times obituary, Topol chose to use his surname professionally because the English pronounced Chaim as Shame.
Chaim Topol’s legendary Tevye performances on stage and the silver screen will resonate with Fiddler fans new and old for many years to come.
Fiddler on the Roof
March 14-19, 2023 • Buell Theatre