Actor Chaim Topol From ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ Fame Remembered as Israeli ‘National Treasure, Cultural Icon and Mensch’ After His Passing

Actor Chaim Topol From ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ Fame Remembered as Israeli ‘National Treasure, Cultural Icon and Mensch’ After His Passing

Shiryn Ghermezian

Chaim Topol, left, posing for a photo with Steven Skybell, who played Tevye in the off-Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish. Photo: Provided

Award-winning Israeli actor Chaim Topol, who played Tevye in the famed musical Fiddler on the Roof both on stage and in the iconic film adaptation, died in Tel Aviv, Israel, at the age of 87, Israeli President Isaac Herzog announced on Wednesday.

Topol, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s several years ago, first took on the role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof on stage in Israel and London in the late 1960s. He was chosen to play Tevye in the 1971 film over actor Zero Mostel, who had starred in the Broadway production. The musical is about a father who tries to maintain his Jewish traditions while marrying off his three daughters. His character became an icon and his renditions of If I Were A Rich Man and Tradition remain among the most beloved songs in movie history

“[Topol’s] iconic portrayal of Tevye inspired many around the globe and we celebrate the impact that he made on all who experienced his art,” Zalmen Mlotek, artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre, told The Algemeiner.

Topol played Tevye for decades and performed the role more than 3,500 times, according to The Associated Press. Though he starred in other films — including Cast a Giant Shadow with Kirk Douglas, Flash Gordon and the 1981 James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only— he is most well-known for playing Tevye. He performed the role for the final time in 2014 when he appeared in a 50th anniversary tribute concert staged by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, which featured several hundred alumni from the Fiddler on the Roof film and Broadway performances

“Growing up in Lubbock, Texas, [seeing] Fiddler on the Roof the movie in 1972 really ignited the imagination of this little Jewish boy who was dreaming of a career in the theater and then Topol‘s performance absolutely validated that there could be a place for Jews in musical theater,” said actor Steven Skybell, who starred as Tevye in the off-Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish in 2018. “It was really a lightbulb moment for me. And I will always be indebted to his performance for that.”

Topol, born in Tel Aviv in 1935,  began his professional acting career in the 1964 hit film Sallah Shabati, for which he won his first Golden Globe. The movie was also the first Israeli film nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign movie. He was part of performance ensembles and theater troupes during his mandatory military service in the Israel Defense Forces. Judea Pearl, who said he did basic training with Topol in the IDF in 1953, remembered that the actor “was able to make the whole platoon laugh to the ground, including the toughest commanders.”

His performance of Tevye won him a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy in 1972, beating out Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka and three other candidates. Topol was also nominated for an Oscar — one of eight nominations that the film received — and in 1991, he was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in a Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof.

“Chaim Topol was larger than life,” Ari Ingel, the director of the non-profit organization Creative Community for Peace, told The Algemeiner after the actor’s death. He added, “Following the success and notoriety for his portrayal of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, Topol became a de facto cultural ambassador for the Jewish people and the State of Israel. A consummate professional, Topol was an icon who used his craft to inspire, unite, and bring people together. May his memory be a blessing.”

The official Twitter account for the state of Israel tweeted about the late actor: “To many of you, he was Tevya, to us Chaim Topol was a national treasure, a cultural icon and above all a human being who loved his country … we lost a legend and a mensch.”

Turner Classic Movies said following his passing, “We are deeply saddened to hear the loss of actor, singer, and illustrator Chaim Topol. A multitalented international star of the stage & screen, we will always remember his warmth that will continue to endure as this sunrise sets.”

“From Fiddler on the Roof to the roof of the world, Haim Topol, who has passed away from us, was one of the most outstanding Israeli stage artists,” Herzog said. “A gifted actor who conquered many stages in Israel and overseas, filled the cinema screens with his presence and above all entered deep into our hearts.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also commented on Topol’s death, saying that his “contribution to Israeli culture will continue to exist for generations.”

Topol illustrated more than 20 books in Hebrew and English and his sketches of Israeli presidents were turned into stamps. In 2015, he was awarded the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement. He is survived by his wife Galia Finkelstein and their three children Anat, Ady and Omer.

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