Scotsman Obituaries: Topol, Israeli star of Fiddler on the Roof

Topol, actor. Born: 9 September 1935 in Tel Aviv. Died: 8 March 2023 in Tel Aviv, aged 87

Topol, pictured in 2015, was just 30 when he first played Tevye (Picture: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Topol, pictured in 2015, was just 30 when he first played Tevye (Picture: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Topol, pictured in 2015, was just 30 when he first played Tevye (Picture: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Topol made an entire career out of the character of Tevye the milkman in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, playing the role more than 3,500 times on stage between 1966 and 2009

He reprised the role on film in 1971, with a performance that secured him an Oscar nomination. Tevye brought him international fame and a Top Ten hit with the song If I Were a Rich Man.

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Topol was about 20 years younger than Tevye when he first played him and a quarter of a century older when he last took to the stage as the character, chatting irreverently with God and despairing over marriage candidates for his three daughters, in Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s musical set in a Jewish village in Imperial Russia in the early years of the 20th Century.

The actor in his unforgettable screen role
The actor in his unforgettable screen role
The actor in his unforgettable screen role

Such was the longevity of Topol’s tenure in the role that Rosalind Harris, who played one of his daughters in the 1971 film version, later played his wife in a Broadway revival in the 1990s.

But Topol was not Tevye in the original 1964 production of the show, which featured the songs Tradition, Matchmaker, Matchmaker, To Life, Anatevka and the poignant Sunrise, Sunset. about the passage of time and children growing up. Zero Mostel won a Tony award for his performance as Tevye on Broadway.

Topol was not even first choice for the original Hebrew-language production in Tel Aviv – he was an understudy. He got his big break in the West End production in 1967, despite the fact that he could speak only very limited English at the time and had to learn the songs and dialogue phonetically.

He had played Tevye in Tel Aviv when the lead actor fell ill, but it was his performance in Sallah, a 1964 satire about life in an Israeli immigration and settlement camp, that put him in the running for Fiddler on the Roof in London.

Sallah won a Golden Globe award as best foreign-language film and was nominated for an Oscar.

Topol was in his twenties, but playing a much older man, who already has seven children and an eighth on the way.

According to Topol, the London producers did not realise how young he was when they invited him to London for an audition.

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“The agent said, ‘Here’s Mr Topol’ and they all looked through me,” he told me when I interviewed him at the Edinburgh Playhouse in 1994 as the latest revival of Fiddler on the Roof went on tour.

“They were very disappointed to see a man of 30. I had just done my yearly service in the army and I was very fit, very slim and sun-tanned. Until I went on stage and sang they were looking at me – ‘Oh what a mistake’.”

And then he sang, with that big rich voice that seemed to gather momentum as it rolled across history from the Russian steppes... and the rest is indeed history.

Topol was born as Chaim Topol in 1935 in Tel Aviv in what was then the British mandate of Palestine – he would later opt to be known simply as Topol because many foreigners found his forename difficult to pronounce.

His parents were scorned by family when they left Poland for an uncertain future in Palestine before the Second World War, but those who remained perished in the Holocaust.

His father worked as a plasterer and was active in the paramilitary organisation Haganah. His mother was a seamstress.

Topol grew up in a working-class area of Tel Aviv and his initial ambition was to become a commercial artist, though he acted in school plays and was assigned to an entertainment troupe during service in the Israeli army, which is where he met his wife Galia.

They married in 1956 and lived in a kibbutz for a while, where he worked as a garage mechanic, but also formed a theatre company, leading in the early 1960s to various roles in professional theatre, both as an actor and in off-stage roles, and to films, including Sallah, and then to Fiddler on the Roof in Tel Aviv and London.

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Zero Mostel was a big star at the time and wanted to reprise his Broadway role of Tevye in the film version. Frank Sinatra also expressed an interest, though he was hardly obvious casting as an East European-Jewish milkman. Director Norman Jewison was not keen on the idea of an American in the role.

He flew to London, saw Topol on stage and cast him instead, much to Mostel’s displeasure.

After his success in the film of Fiddler on the Roof, Topol enjoyed a brief career in big international movies.

He had already appeared in a small role in Cast a Giant Show, a big glossy 1966 epic about the early days of the modern state of Israel, with Kirk Douglas and John Wayne.

In the early 1980s he played the scientist Hans Zarkov in Flash Gordon and he was James Bond’s ally Milos Columbo in For Your Eyes Only

In Israel Topol was also known for his philanthropic work, including setting up a year-round camp for Jewish and Arab children with serious illnesses, and also as an illustrator.

He provided drawings of Israeli presidents for a set of postage stamps He even drew himself for commemorative Fiddler on the Roof stamps in 2014.

He is survived by his wife and their three children.


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