Theodore Bikel, the Tony- and Oscar-nominated actor and singer whose passions included folk music and political activism, died Tuesday morning of natural causes at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, said his agent Robert Malcolm. He was 91.
The Austrian-born Bikel was noted for the diversity of the roles he played, from a Scottish police officer to a Russian submarine skipper, Jewish refugee, Dutch sea captain and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. He sang in 21 languages.
He also appeared on numerous television shows, recorded books on tape, appeared in opera productions and issued more than 20 contemporary and folk music albums. Many albums featured Hebrew and Yiddish folk music.
He received an Oscar nomination for his 1958 portrayal of a Southern sheriff in “The Defiant Ones,” the acclaimed drama about two prison escapees, one black and one white.
The following year, Bikel starred on Broadway as Capt. Georg von Trapp in the original 1959 production of “The Sound of Music.”
But many viewers knew him best for his longtime portrayal of Tevye in stage productions “Fiddler on the Roof.” Although he did not appear in the original 1964 Broadway version or the 1971 film, he played Tevye more than 2,000 times on stage from 1967 onward.
Among his film roles, he played the grumpy Soviet submarine captain in the Oscar-nominated 1966 Cold War comedy “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.” He played Kissinger in the TV movie “The Final Days.”
A prolific recording artist, Bikel also helped found the Newport Folk Festival with Pete Seeger in 1959, an event that has drawn hundreds of thousands of fans to Rhode Island over the decades and launched the careers of many notable musicians.
Bikel, who jokingly referred to himself as “the poor man’s Peter Ustinov,” was 80 when he received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in 2005. Friends including Martin Landau and Ed Asner were among the fellow actors who flanked Bikel during the ceremony.
“Finally, Theo gets his due!” Asner said.
He spent much of his youth in Palestine and was fiercely devoted to supporting Jewish causes, as well as the Democratic Party and human rights groups. He was one of six leaders of the American Jewish Congress arrested while protesting in 1986 outside the Soviet embassy in Washington, over that government’s restrictions on letting Jews leave the country.
Bikel did not consider his activism at odds with his work as a performer. In fact, he once said he thrived on the variety in his life.
“Professionally, I can count three or four separate existences,” he said.
Born in 1924, in Vienna, Austria, Bikel moved with his family to Palestine when he was a teenager. While living on a kibbutz there, he discovered his love for drama.
“I often stood on heaps of manure, leaning on a pitchfork, singing Hebrew songs at the top of my voice – songs that extolled the beauty of callused hands and the nobility of work, which I was not doing too well,” he wrote in his 1994 autobiography.
Bikel started acting in Tel Aviv’s Habimah Theatre in 1943, then moved in 1946 to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Within a few years, he won a role in the London production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” with Vivien Leigh. He played Mitch, Stanley Kowalski’s friend. It was the first of several high-profile collaborations between Bikel and scores of noteworthy fellow performers in Europe and North America.
He made his Broadway debut in 1955 in “Tonight in Samarkind” and in 1958 was nominated for a Tony for “The Rope Dancers.”
In 1959, he created the role of Capt. von Trapp in the original Broadway production of “The Sound of Music,” playing opposite Mary Martin as Maria. It earned him a second Tony nomination.
As a folk musician, Bikel made his concert debut in 1956 at the Carnegie Recital Hall, and went on to write, perform and translate lyrics to music for the next several decades.
Bikel, who became an American citizen in 1961, said in his autobiography, “Theo: The Autobiography of Theodore Bikel,” that one of the key moral dilemmas of his life was whether to return to his homeland in 1948 when Israel declared its statehood.
He chose to remain in London.
“A few of my contemporaries regarded what I did as a character flaw, if not a downright act of desertion,” he wrote. “In me, there remains a small, still voice that asks whether I can ever fully acquit myself in my own mind.”
Bikel was among the guests on Sept. 13, 1993, when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat sealed their historic peace agreement with a handshake on the White House lawn.
Bikel also served as a delegate to the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago, president of the Actors’ Equity Association from 1973-1982, board member of Amnesty International, member of the National Council on the Arts, and president of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America.
Bikel is survived by his wife, Aimee Ginsburg; sons Rob and Danny Bikel; stepsons Zeev and Noam Ginsburg; and three grandchildren.