Chaim Topol, Tevye in Film and Stage Versions of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ Dies at 87
Chaim Topol, who became professionally known solely by his last name in a career that included starring in “Fiddler on the Roof” on stage and screen and co-starring in the James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only” and the sci-fi film “Flash Gordon,” died Thursday in Tel Aviv after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 87 years old.
Topol’s death was confirmed by Israel’s president Isaac Herzog, who described him as a “gifted actor who conquered many stages in Israel and overseas, filled the cinema screens with his presence and especially entered deep into our hearts.”
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Topol began his long association with the starring role of Tevye the milkman in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1967, appearing in the West End production, which ran for 2,030 performances. He starred in Norman Jewison’s 1971 film version, which carried a budget estimated at $9 million and garnered a domestic gross of $80 million. The movie was nominated for eight Oscars, including best picture and best actor for Topol. It won for cinematography, sound and music.
A Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1990-91 (there have since been others) won the Tony for best revival of a musical; Topol was nominated for best actor in a musical.
He had earlier reprised the role of Tevye in a 1983 London revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” and he played the role in a touring U.S. production in the late 1980s. After the 1990 Broadway revival, he played the part in a 1994 London revival, which became a touring production. He then played Tevye in various productions in Europe, Australia and Japan.
In 1980 he starred as Dr. Hans Zarkov in “Flash Gordon,” whose football player title character was played by Sam J. Jones; Max von Sydow played the villainous Emperor Ming. Timothy Dalton and Brian Blessed were also in the cast of the Mike Hodges film, which was strictly high camp, complete with a soundtrack from the band Queen.
The following year Topol appeared in the Roger Moore 007 entry “For Your Eyes Only.” Topol played Greek smuggler Columbo, who is able to muster forces to aid James Bond in defeating Julian Glover’s villain Kristatos.
The 1980s continued to be fruitful for Topol, as he was cast as Berel Jastrow, one of the main characters in ABC’s huge miniseries based on the books by Herman Wouk, “The Winds of War” (1983) and “War and Remembrance” (1988-89). In between he appeared in an Israeli film, Oded Kotler’s “Roman Behemshechim” (1985), and the soapy miniseries “Queenie” (1987), a fictionalized treatment of the life of actress Merle Oberon, with a starry cast including Kirk Douglas, Claire Bloom and Joel Grey.
Topol’s last feature credit was the Jeroen Krabbé-directed 1998 film “Left Luggage.”
The actor first became known to American audiences in the 1964 movie “Sallah,” directed by Ephraim Kishon and released in the U.S. in Hebrew with English subtitles. The film was Oscar-nominated for best foreign language film, while Topol was named most promising newcomer – male at the Golden Globes. It also drew a measured review from the New York Times: “As a comedy, ‘Sallah’ is a rarity in the annals of the tiny Israeli movie colony, but this gentle saga of an unlettered Oriental Jew’s successful campaign against entrenched bureaucracy and the 20th century is more educational than hilarious. Sallah Shabbati and his coterie are an unusual, endearing, often colorful lot, but their humor is largely rudimentary.”
Topol next made his first appearance in an English-language film, Melville Shavelson’s “Cast a Giant Shadow” (1966), which follows a U.S. Army officer (Kirk Douglas) recruited to help the as-yet created nation of Israel to form an army of its own. Topol played Abou Ibn Kader, an Arab, in the big-budget American production.
In 1969, the actor appeared in Columbia’s J. Lee Thompson-directed British production “Before Winter Comes” with David Niven, Anna Karina, a young John Hurt and Anthony Quayle. The story takes place in a displaced persons camp in Austria after the end of World War II; an interpreter (Topol) mediates between the British and the Soviets as to the fate of various camp residents.
That year Topol also appeared in Richard Quine’s “A Talent for Loving” along with Richard Widmark, Geneviève Page and Cesar Romero. The film, in which Topol was cast as a Mexican, was nobody’s creative high-water mark — but left no permanent damage on Topol’s career.
After the extraordinary success of “Fiddler on the Roof,” the actor appeared in Carol Reed’s “The Public Eye” (1972), Peter Shaffer’s adaptation of his own play, in which Michael Jayston plays an uptight British accountant who, convinced that his wife (Mia Farrow) is having an affair, hires a detective (Topol) to follow her. The wife and the detective fall in love. Farrow and Topol made for a very odd couple indeed. Critic Dennis Schwartz wrote in 2015: “Though Mia is a natural for her vulnerable role, a miscast Topol is tough enough to watch as a leading man but when he also tries for Peter Sellers comedy he becomes unbearable.”
Again rather improbably, Topol appeared in a 1973 NBC TV movie “The Going Up of David Lev” — scripted by Topol’s longtime Israeli collaborator Ephraim Kishon — in which Brandon Cruz played a 10-year-old Israeli determined to find out more about his father’s death during the Six Day War years earlier. The cast also included Melvyn Douglas and Claire Bloom.
In the Joseph Losey-directed 1975 feature biopic “Galileo,” Topol played the title character, the astronomer whom the Vatican imprisons because he asserts, correctly, that the Earth revolves around the Sun.
In 1979, the actor starred in ABC TV movie “The House on Garibaldi Street,” about the capture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann by Israeli agents in Buenos Aires in 1960.
On Broadway Topol was the producer of the original musical “Ipi-Tombi” in 1976-77.
Topol was born in Tel Aviv in 1935.
Topol’s early films (wherein he was still credited as Chaim Topol or Haym Topol) included “I Like Mike” (1961), in which he had a supporting role; the Menahem Golan-directed and co-scripted “El Dorado” (1963), in which Topol starred with great Israeli actress Gila Almagor; and the film that first established for him an international profile, “Sallah” (1964), in which he again starred with Almagor.
After appearing in “Cast a Giant Shadow,” he worked for “Sallah” director Ephraim Kishon again in “Ervinka” (1967), in which he played the title character, a good-natured layabout who becomes involved with a plot to rob the Israeli lottery. Almagor was again in the cast.
In 2015, Topol was awarded Israel’s highest honor: the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement.
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