Talented Theodore Bikel thrives on diversity

Talented Theodore Bikel thrives on diversity


By Rebecca Redshaw

Reprinted from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Tuesday, October 26, 1999

Tevye, the patriarch in “Fiddler on the Roof,” often philosophized, “on the one hand … and on the other hand…,” filling in the blanks with alternatives to life’s challenges. It might seem impossible to interview Theodore Bikel without mention of his more than 1,600 performances in “Fiddler” worldwide, but on the other hand, Bikel is such a dynamic man with so many talents and different interests, it never came up in our conversation.

Bikel opens the 74th season for the Y Music Society at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland performing “An Evening of International Music.” He will select folk songs for this visit that he hopes will appeal to a diverse cultural audience.

“I refuse to do shows that are narrowly constructed, that appeal to only one sentiment,” he says. “I do a lot of Jewish material in front of non-Jews and a lot of non-Jewish material in front of Jews on the simple theory that the non-Jews are entitled to a glimpse of a Jewish world and the Jews are entitled to a glimpse of the world.”

For more than 50 years Bikel’s career choices have been as diverse as his audience. In 1943, at the age of 19, he became an apprentice actor and by the following year co-founded the Israeli Chamber Theatre. By the time he graduated with honors from London’s Royal Academy several years later, Bikel had developed a serious interest in guitar and folk music, in addition to acting. As a founder of the Newport Folk Festival in 1961, he notes there is continued growth in the popularity of folk music in the world.

Over the years, he has recorded more than 16 albums, acted in countless television roles and performed on stage, most recently in the acclaimed production of “The Gathering” in New York City.

Bikel is no stranger to the silver screen, appearing in “My Fair Lady,” “The African Queen” and “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.” One of the high points of his career was an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of a Southern sheriff in “The Defiant Ones.”

When asked about the longevity of his career in such a wide variety of artistic arenas, Bikel responds candidly. “I’m going to give you a kooky answer — versatility. The fact that I can go from one [art form] to another and equip myself professionally in more than one is infuriating to some people. They like to pigeonhole you because it’s more easily definable. I glory in the fact that a human being has multiple talents and exercises them all with a degree of integrity and artistic proficiency. That’s what I do.”

A U.S. citizen since 1961, Bikel was active politically in the civil rights movement and an elected delegate to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Over the years, he has been an activist in a number of organizations. Currently, he is president of the Associated Actors and Artists of America, an advisory group on artistic matters.

“What happened in New York City at the Brooklyn Museum earlier this month was déjà vu all over again,” Bikel states, referring to his involvement with the controversial NEA/Mapplethorpe exhibit 10 years ago. “You cannot please all of the people all of the time, and that is truer in the arts than anywhere else.

“I’m as shocked as anybody with the expression of blasphemy, for example. But people make a fundamental mistake. Obscenity, under certain situations, is illegal and held to be illegal by the courts. Blasphemy is not. It may be shocking, it may be repulsive and repugnant to segments of the population, but it is not the same as obscenity. You cannot ban it and you cannot punish it. The only thing you can do is stay away from it.”

Bikel performs as often as 60 times a year and, after his performance here, will start rehearsals for a new production of “The Gathering” being staged in Florida in December. When he finds the time to relax he enjoys reading fiction or finding information on the Internet.

“I am first, and foremost, an actor. That’s what I am. To me, a song is a mini-drama. My musical ability informs the actor as well because it gives me a sense of timing that non-musicians don’t have. So, one hand washes the other.”