Theodore Bikel, Captain von Trapp in ‘The Sound of Music’ and Tevye in ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ Dies at 91

By Jonathan Spira on 21 July 2015
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Theodore Bikel, one of the most versatile actors of stage and screen, died on Tuesday in Los Angeles at the age of 91.  Mr. Bikel played Captain von Trapp in the original Broadway production of “The Sound of Music” and appeared more times as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” than any other actor.

Mr. Bikel was born in Vienna and attended the Amerlinggymnasium along with my father, Fred Spira, until he and his family moved to Palestine shortly after the Anschluß (annexation of Austria by Germany).

A master of languages, dialects and accents, Mr. Bikel played all manners of roles, from Zoltan Karpathy, the dialect expert, in the film version of “My Fair Lady” to Sergey Rozhenko, the adoptive father of Lieutenant Worf in the television series “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

He won two Tony awards, one for his role as Captain von Trapp, and was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Sheriff Max Muller in the 1958 film, “The Defiant Ones.”

The actor, who once wrote my father a letter explaining that he had had to “hire a detective agency” to find my father’s address, was a frequent visitor to our home before I was born, often coming with his mother, referred to only as “Mrs. Bikel” (he had divorced his first wife in the 1940s and remarried in 1967).  I last saw him two years ago in Los Angeles where we met for coffee.  He drove up in his old Volvo and was full of energy and life.  When we spoke last year, he told me of his marriage to Aimee Ginsburg a few months earlier.  When I expressed surprise, given that his third wife, Tamara Brooks, had passed away not that long ago, he told me that “one must find joy even where there is sadness.”

On an earlier visit, he related the story of being asked to represent the cast at a celebration of what (I believe) was the 40th anniversary of the film “My Fair Lady,” in which he had a relatively minor role.  When he asked the organizers why he was chosen, he was told that he was the only cast member still alive.

He also recounted how the song “Edelweiss,” which many erroneously believe to be an authentic Austrian folksong, was written specifically for “The Sound of Music” and added relatively close to the opening on Broadway.

Mr. Bikel moved to London in 1945, where he studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and then moved to New York in 1954.  In addition to being recognized as a gifted actor, his talent for folk songs – singing in languages that included French, Hebrew, Hungarian, Russian, Romanian, and Spanish – didn’t go unnoticed.

He often reminisced about his last days in Vienna after the Anschluß.  As he noted in his autobiography, “Theo,” out of the 45 students in his class at the Amerlinggymnasium, ten were Jewish and seven, including my father, survived the war.

His most recent post on Facebook was just over a month ago, linking to an article in the Huffington Post with the title, “Long Live the Weird and Wonderful Theo Bikel, Role Model, Mentor and Renaissance Mench!”

Rest in peace dear Theo, we will miss you.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

Accura News

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