Theodore Bikel

May 2, 1924 - July 21 2015.


Legendary actor, singer, author, civil rights activist and union leader Theodore (Meir) Bikel was born in 1924, in Vienna, Austria. He was only thirteen when Hitler and Göring paraded with their invading army beneath his apartment window on Mariahilfestrasse–one of the main thoroughfares in Vienna. He and his parents - Josef z”l and Miriam z”l -were able to leave six months later for Palestine.

Already fluent in Hebrew, Yiddish, and German with a respectable command of English and French, he intended to study and teach comparative linguistics. But his many other talents, and perhaps fate, intervened.Theo Bikel sang from the time he was a child. He sang with his parents at home and in the Vienna woods. Later, as a young man on a kibbutz, he found an abandoned guitar, taught himself to play and never not stopped playing and singing since. He sang with group of international friends in London; as a young actor/singer was invited to Buckingham Palace to perform for theQueen Mother (and her daughters). Upon arriving in the US,  Bikel first sang at parties, in informal venues and in clubs. He was invited by the legendary Jac Holtzman to record for Elektra records, and since has made more than 25 albums, many of them best selling, of Yiddish songs, folk songs, freedom songs, cast albums of musicals, and classical works. Theo was known for his songs in many languages: he sang in 33 of them. He was adored byJewish audiences for recording many Yiddish albums and Hebrew folk songs,  introducing this music to enthusiastic audiences. With his rising popularity, Theo began to sing in concert halls throughout the country and abroad, and his concert schedule remained heavy until the last month of his life. In 1956 he gave his first, celebrated, Carnegie Hall concert (a young, mostly unknown Judy Collins opened for him). He performed many concerts each year throughout the U.S.,Canada and Europe,Israel, New Zealand and Australia.

In 1961, together with Pete Seeger and George Wien, Theo co-founded the legendary Newport Folk Festival, and performed there together with Bobby Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, Joanie Baez, Mississippi John Hurt, Odetta, and so many other legends of American Folk Music.

Theodore Bikel’s theatre life began at age 19 as a student actor in the Habima Theatre in Tel Aviv, Israel. Soon after, in 1944, he co-founded the Cameri Theatre in which he worked for several years before entering the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London from which he graduated with honors. He then appeared in several West End plays including A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Vivien Leigh at the invitation and under the direction of Sir Laurence Olivier; and The Love of Four Colonels by and with Peter Ustinov. It was during this time that he was cast for the small role of Second Captain in the film The African Queen. While in London, he worked continually to raise funds and awareness for the plight of the Jewish refugees after the holocaust, for theSocialist Zionist ideals he grew up with at home, and, in 1947-48, urgent support for the newly formed State of Israel during the war of independence.

In 1955, Theo was invited to America to appear on Broadway in Tonight In Samarkand, and, falling in love with New York, he decided to settle in the States, eventually buying his home in Greenwich Village which quickly became a center for Civil Rights activism and a Folk Musicians hangout. After Tonight in Samarkand, Theo had many memorable stage performances.

In1959, he created the iconic role of Baron von Trapp on Broadway in The Sound of Music opposite Mary Martin; the song Edelweiss was written specifically for him after Rogers and Hammerstein heard him playing his guitar and singing to the cast during a lunch break in the first days of rehearsals. Some of his other stage performances were in The Lark, The Rope Dancers, I Do I Do, The Sunshine Boys, My Fair Lady, Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living in Paris, The Chosen, The Gathering,  About Time, The Disputation, (Wesker’s) Shylock, Zorba The Greek, and the one man show “Shalom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears” which he wrote and directed. Theo received two Tony nominations for actor in a lead role.

But the role Theodore Bikel is perhaps most remembered is the role of Tevye’ in the stage version of Fiddler On the Roof: he has played Tevye’ more than any other actor, over 2200 times in tours spanning 40 years and the entire United States. He received such wide critical acclaim for his portrayal of Sholom Aleichem's character that many came to believe that this role was made for him. 

Between concerts and stage performances, Bikel found the time to become a renowned film actor, as well. 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).

The documentary film Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem, in whichTheo acts, sings, and narrates, was released in 2014 and has screened to critical acclaim across the US and abroad.

Mr Bikel also enjoyed a spectacular Television career, guest-starring in an astonishing number of dramatic and comedic shows including (but not limited to): Law And Order, JAG, All InThe Family, Dynasty, Murder She Wrote, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Babylon 5, Little House On The Prairie, The Twilight Zone, The Final Days (as Henry Kissinger), L.A. Law, Paper Chase,  and Columbo. He received a daytime Emmy Award for his portrayal of Harris Newmark, a founder father of Los Angeles and one of the first Jewish settlers in the city that was to become Theo's hometown as well. 

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.

But as important as his musical and acting career were to him, Theo was equally devoted to the causes of Peace, Civil rights, and social Justice. He was a devoted labor union leader, serving as VP and President of the  Actors’ Equity Association for nearly 20 years. During that time he was instrumental in the establishment of a National Council on the Arts; of federally supported housing for actors; of Actors Federal Credit Union (his account was number 7); and wrote the Equity regulations regarding protection for Equity members in shows where nudity is required. As Vice President of the International Federation of Actors (FIA) for ten years, he argued for international cooperation with actors’ unions and guilds behind what was then the Iron Curtain. “The smell of greasepaint is stronger than the whiff of gun powder", he said. Theo served for many years (and until the end of his life) as President of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America (4A’s) and was appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 to serve a 5-year term on the National Council for the Arts.

Always a "political animal",  Theo Bikel was a delegate to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and played a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement, participating in marches and voter registration drives in the south and playing concerts throughout the county–concerts whose content was mainly the message of equality for all people. He was arrested for acts of civil disobedience against segregation in the Southern USA, for his work on behalf of Soviet Jewry, and against apartheid in South Africa. He was very active in SNCC (Students Non Violent CoordinatingCommittee), a major anti segregation organization, but split with them publicly after SNCC published anti-Semitic materials.

Throughout his career, Theodore Bikel felt a particular responsibility to Jewish life and to the Jewish community, and had what has been called a “profound impact on Jewish culture”. His numerous albums of Jewish folk music, concerts and theater performances, his co-founding of Israel’s Cameri Theater, his leadership in the Soviet Jewry movement, have all distinguished him as a Jewish activist.Theo served as Vice President of the American Jewish congress and was actively involved in numerous aspects of Jewish and Yiddish culture. One of his deepest passions was the survival of theYiddish language and he devoted much energy to insure its continued existence. Theo served as Chairman of Meretz USA – the US support arm of an Israeli Political Party that seeks to pursue peace and religious pluralism. Shortly before his death in 2015 he was chosen to lead the progressive HaTikva list to the World Zionist Congress.

Theo Bikel was also an accomplished translator of song lyrics. His book, Folksongs and Footnotes, published by Meridian Books in 1961, has had three reprint editions. His updated autobiography, Theo (with a special Afterward for his 90th year)was published by the University of Wisconsin Press.His latest released CDs were IN MY OWN LIFETIME - a bouquet of Theatre Songs and OUR SONG a compilation of duets with renowned Cantor Alberto Mizrahi. In 2016, Redhouse Records published the CD In My Own Lifetime, a collection of spoken word and songs recorded before he died. In 2009, Theo performed with many of his colleagues at a special 85th Birthday concert at Carnegie Hall. In 2014, for his 90th birthday, he performed, again with a host of folk and Jewish music legends, at the Sabban Theatre in LA. From 2008-2012 Theo toured and performed in the quartet Serendipity 4/ A Bridge 4 Peace,  devoted to the notion that music can reach across the lines of national conflict and promote Peace among even the fiercest of“enemies”.

In addition to tmany 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.

Theo was married to Ofra Bikel (1956-1957), Rita Weinberg Bikel (1967-2008), Tamara Brooks(2008-2012) and Aimee Ginsburg Bikel. He was Father to sons Rob and Danny, and Stepfather to step sons Zeev and Noam. 


Click HERE For Theo's story in his own words, from the NY Public Library's Oral Histories collection.