One of stage and screen's premier character actors, Theodore Bikel originated the role of Captain Von Trapp in the original Broadway cast of The Sound of Music, oft performed the role of Tevye in the stage musical Fiddler on the Roof, and played Zoltan Karpathy in the film of My Fair Lady in addition to being a star performer of folk music, live, on record, and on TV's Hootenanny (he also cofounded the Newport Folk Festival). Born in Vienna, Bikel specialized in dialects, in roles like a German naval officer in The African Queen, the king of Serbia in Moulin Rouge (1952), a German submarine officer in The Enemy Below, and the Russian captain in The Russians are Coming The Russians are Coming. Other films include The Pride and the Passion and The Defiant Ones, for which he received an Oscar nomination. TV guest appearances include Studio One in Hollywood, Playhouse 90, The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Mission: Impossible, Columbo, Beauty and the Beast, Law & Order, Murder, She Wrote and Star Trek: The Next Generation, as Worf's adoptive father. Bikel came to the 34th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival to screen the film Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem, which captures his one-man show, and to accept the fest's Freedom of Expression Award. We spoke at the Four Seasons Hotel.
Groucho: You tell in the film of your family's precious Sholem Aleichem volumes. What's your first memory of something specific you read in those books, and what did you love about them?
Theodore Bikel: Well, first of all it was the fact that my father, who was so involved and so in love with that literature—he would always, usually on a Tuesday—don't ask me why a Tuesday, I have no idea— usually on a Tuesday night after dinner, we would sit around a table and my father would read a short story, a monologue. Sometimes he would read a whole play—do an act and then follow it the next Tuesday with the second act—all the play by Sholem Aleichem, in Yiddish. And so my earliest memories are of my father reading in Yiddish and specifically Sholem Aleichem. The stories that affected me were, for example, there's a whole slew of stories called Motl, Peysi the Cantor's Son. And that's about a young boy who makes his way to America and all the things that he has to overcome and what he meets...and it's funny the way that Sholem Aleichem perceived his world and also how he perceived the world around him that was not Jewish.
Groucho: Like the great "America" monologue in the film.
Theodore Bikel: Yeah, right. And for example, too, he says—the same Berl Isaac—a much longer monologue than what's in the film. And he says, "And what they eat, they hurry, they hurry to eat, to eat. They order a glass, not of tea, God forbid, but of a drink I never heard of called vhiskey! And they eat smoked fish. Who ever heard such a thing? Smoked fish? For breakfast?" He said, "I am still dry when I found out that this meal is called breakfish."
G: (Laughs.) That's good. So I assume you also inherited your love of folk music from your family. How did that come about?
TB: My father and mother sang. They sang with me. When we were still in Vienna, we'd wander on Sundays in the Vienna woods, singing at the top of our lungs in Yiddish, in Hebrew, in Ukrainian. And at home we sang: my father sang Yiddish songs and taught them to me. Sometimes friends would come to the house, and my mother proudly urged me to sing for the friends. And as I say in the film, I would only do it if she provided a stage for me, a newspaper on the floor. And so I would sing. In fact, I could sing before I could talk.
G: Your voice, both your speaking and your singing voice, have been instrumental in your career. How did you find your voice, or develop your voice?
TB: You know, I never took a lesson. It was just there. And I found that—I'm a communicator. I reach an audience by whichever means are possible, and my voice is one of them. The other is the ability to clearly enunciate what it is that I want to say. Say or sing. And to treat everything as a story to be told. Frankly, singers who have beautiful voices but are conscious only of the sound, I find it unacceptable and, frankly, boring.
G: Yeah, they're losing half the battle.
TB: (Demonstrates with falsetto yowling.) No delineation or no sharpness of consonants. The idea is that a song is just like a short story, except it has music in it. And you have to be able to go from A to Z and to be able to tell what it is about. Some opera singers have the quality that they can transmute what they want to say when they are singing it. And others don't. Others, just mellifluous voices. Women are often more guilty of that than men, because their voices are higher, and their attention to consonants is not always meticulous.
G: You also have a marvelous facility for accents, for dialects. Did you develop that partly through your training at RADA, or again is that something that you just have a great ear for accents?
TB: I'm also a linguist. I like language. I do a lot of accents of languages in which I am not fluent, along with those in which I am. I have pride as an actor and as a linguist. So much so that sometimes people accuse me of lying when I tell them, "No, Russia is not my native tongue." In fact, I would be hard pressed to conduct an entire intelligent conversation in Russian as my Russian is rudimentary at best. Except that when I sing it, it is very authentic.
G: (Laughs.) So you did over 2,000 performances of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. It seems like with that much time with Tevye that you and he are almost like an old married couple. Can you talk about how that relationship has evolved over time? Of course you do some of the Tevye from the stories as well in the show and in the film.
TB: Well, my Tevye is much fuller and richer than the Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof is, as I said, "Sholem Aleichem lite." And it doesn't show the depth and the tragic aspects of Tevye's life. I understand that because, after all, Fiddler on the Roof is a musical comedy, of the musical theater created at a time when the cutting edge of the Broadway theater was not what it became later: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Les Miserables. So it's all toned down. Except, of course, it goes places which are unavoidably harsh: namely the fact that the youngest daughter marries out of the faith. Where Tevye could make his peace with the eldest daughter marrying a pauper, a poor tailor, instead of the rich butcher, the second daughter married a revolutionary student, but...who's still Jewish. And could marry them under a huppah...The third daughter, he couldn't accept. Could not accept. Draw the line. And that kind of was a paradigm of what happened to many Jews, Fiddler, when they were confronted with similar problems. In the play, by the way, which has had many permutations, some of them non-musical, Tevye forgives his daughter, doesn't forgive. Tevye, even at the end of Fiddler, it's interesting, the daughter who married out of the faith comes to say goodbye and to tell her father that she and her husband are also leaving because of the terrible thing that's happening, the father does not acknowledge her presence. Except the way I played it anyway. And she said, "Goodbye, Papa." And Tevye, as it were into the air, says, "God be with you." Not to anybody, but he sees the eldest daughter there, and he motions, "Tell her. You tell her, I can't." You know?
G: Yeah. So your stage play, on which this new film is partially based, how did that come about?
TB: Oh, I wanted to write about how our two worlds intersected: my world and Sholem Aleichem's. and I wanted to, in the stage play, show that I'm an actor. I speak with many accents. I sometimes wear outlandish clothes, all of that. And it's harder to do when you're portraying a character that actually exists. Can I look like Sholem Aleichem? No. He was a much slighter and slimmer man than I. But I'm not an impersonator; I'm an actor. An impersonator goes for the outward traits of a person. The actor goes for the inside. And that I can do. Tell the stories as in the voice of Sholem Aleichem. Tell his stories to—for instance, like the story that I read at the Yahrzeit [Ed.: annual memorial, in Manhattan, of Aleichem's death] of the coachman, etc. Lovely vignettes, of stories. And then in the end, the will. That ethical will that he wrote. It's still being observed and still, once a year, every year. And I've been at several of those. Once, I remember, years ago, I took my father, and he read a story in Yiddish, and I read another story in English.
G: Wow. So you did the film, famously, of My Fair Lady. And I'm curious what you remember about working with Cukor and Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison and just a production of that size: it seems so enormous.
TB: Yeah, it's kind of daunting. To me, it boiled down to minutiae in the sense of I knew that I would have to dance with her. Dancing is not my forte! And I said to the producers, "I'll take the role, gladly, but only if I get ballroom dancing instruction. 'Cause God forbid I should tread on her toes. And so surely for two weeks, every day I came to the studio and we had ballroom dancing, just me and an instructor.
G: (Chuckles) Well, that worked out. There were no accidents, right?
G: And you do, or you have done, lectures on acting. And I wonder if you could summarize, a little bit, what you talk about in those lectures. You talk about Stanislavsky, right? And how he's been misinterpreted to some degree.
TB: There've been several schools of acting: what I call the internalized school and the externalized school. The internalized school, as represented by Stanislavsky, seeks to plumb what it is inside of the actor's own ken, memory, sense, and apply it to the role that he or she plays. Which is fine, except it has limitations. Not everything that you play finds anything remotely in your own life that resembles it or that is useful even to use in the creation of the role. It's fine when you're playing, let's say, a kindly grandfather, even a grumpy grandfather. It's not fine if you play an ogre, a murderer. What do I have in common with a murderer? You play a king...I've never been near a king when I've tackled one of the Shakespeare characters. So what do you draw on? You have to draw on your intelligence, your literary memory, not your personal memory, stuff like that.
G: And your imagination.
TB: Yes, of course. Also, some of the things that Stanislavsky recommended were useful to him, but not neccessarily for other people. He found, for example, he wrote, that—you know, if you concentrate before going on stage—he would hum a little Russian folk tune in order to get concentrated and then go out on stage. I found people who were tone-deaf humming not their own, but Russian, tunes in order to concentrate. That's a grievous misreading of a teacher's instructions.
G: That's an unimaginative interpretation of a lesson.
TB: Okay, that's one. Then, I went to England to the Royal Academy fo Dramatic Art, where most of the stuff was external. If it looks right, itf it dresses right, if it pronounces right, they don't give a shit what's inside.
TB: So you find out that that is also wanting. So how do you create an amalgam of both, the internal and the external, in order to arrive at something that, to me, is an acceptable form of creating a character on stage? To feel, to have the discipline to feel what the character feels at that moment and, moreover, to have the discipline to do it again tomorrow night.
G: And it seems that it's also a matter of—as you have more years in—I think Meisner says that it takes...twenty years before you can even be a good actor, but over time it gets easier, doesn't it, to access what you need, to find that middle ground.
TB: You know what's in your box. Just like you know what's in your makeup box. You know where the colors are, you know where the paint brushes are, where everything is. And then you are confronted sometimes with a role for which you need new tools that are not in your box. And you have to be alert and alive enough to be able to plumb—to think outside of the box...
G: One of the things that stands out in your resume is your TV work, starting from the days of live television drama and then appearing in so many shows, guesting on so many shows, like The Twilight Zone and Columbo and Mission: Impossible and Star Trek. Were there any particular experiences in television that really stand out? Julius Caesar you did [on Studio One in Hollywood]. What were some of your favorite shows to be a part of?
TB: Television's a strange medium. It combines the things that film has with other aspects of live theater. Film, when you do a scene, if it doesn't quite work, you do it again. On the stage, you don't have that luxury. It is or it isn't. It's there. It's in the moment and of the moment. Also, unlike film, television doesn't have time to do retakes. Too many of them—some yes, not many. So you literally have a week to ten days to do an hour show. And it's carefully parcelled out as to how much each day you can do and achieve. Film, I've been in films that took three, four months time. What stands out? Quite a few shows. You mentioned the Julius Caesar. I think I wrote about this in my book.
G: With [director] Leo Penn.
TB: Yeah, they killed me, as Caesar. And it was in the studio that wasn't air conditioned. You know, I was lying on the floor, sweating. Corpses don't sweat. And then the extras were kind of funny. They didn't know they were being funny. Because Brutus says, "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears." And the director says, "Don't let him talk until he shushes you. 'Lend me your ears!' Then shut up and you let him do the—" Okay. So they're doing this, and it's live! And he says, "Friends, Romans, countrymen..." Suddenly I hear a voice of an extra next to me saying, [Ed.: in Brooklyn accent:] 'Anybody could get up there and tawk."
TB: So they had this sweating and giggling corpse of Caesar on the floor, praying that the camera wasn't on me.
G: That's when you need a commercial break, to get out of there, yeah.
G: Well, you've been in that lucky—well, not lucky, maybe—but in that honored position of being president of Actor's Equity and then the four "A"s, right?
G: The Associated Actors and Artistes of America.
TB: Still today.
G: The people in those positions are obviously so respected by their peers. But I guess I'm wondering what were some of the biggest issues that came up in your tenures in those organizations. Or what today is of greatest concern to actors?
TB: The great concern to me has been—still is—the fact that actors, unlike other workers, don't work as work. The harder you work for a living—actors are so in love with what they do that they throw caution to the wind. Any other worker who works in a factory...it is quite natural to any other worker to say I need to be protected by my union against being exploited by people who always want to give me less and do less for me as a working human being. Actors, on the other hand, love what they do so much that they don't care: "Okay, pay me less, but I want to act. I want to do it. I love to sing, I love to act. I want to dance. So not only did I have to protect them from exploitation by unscrupulous producers, but I had to protect them from themselves. And their insistence that they don't care whether or not they make a living. And I would negotiate with producers and say, "These people are human beings, with families." And some of the producers—David Merrick, who deserved and had the title of "the Abominable Showman," said, "What families? They're faggots." I said, "Even they have families. Their families!" So it was difficult. Difficult to convince the producers, difficult to convince the actors. And we did it...there was a strike. And we struck because we wanted actors to have a pension plan...And young actors, dancers, eighteen-year-olds, nineteen-year-olds, said, "What am I striking for? A pension plan? That takes effect when I'm, what, sixty? And you want me not to work today because of some vague notion of the future?..."One for all and all for one" is the motto, and yeah, that's what we did. And today, these people who complained then have a pension.
G: You once went on [for Bonar Coleano] as Stanley Kowalski, opposite Vivien Leigh [in a production directed by her husband Laurence Olivier].
G: What was it like being Stanley for a night?
TB: Actually, it was for a number of nights.
G: Oh, it was?
TB: Oh, yeah.
G: Oh, because he was out with a—
TB: He had a broken ankle. I went to Vivien Leigh's dressing room for the first time that I was called upon to do it. I said, "Is there anything you want to talk to me about?" Because I had been rehearsing, understudy rehearsals, with other understudies, not with the principals. "Anything you want to talk to me about?" She said, "No. Larry trusted you to do this. Let's see if he was right."
G: No pressure.
TB: Yeah, no...a few nights later, the stage manager says, "You know, Larry, Sir Laurence, was in yesterday, and he saw the first act. And I said, "Did he say anything?" And the stage manager said, "Not a word. Don't push your luck."
G: (Laughs.) That's good. And of course one of your most prominent stage credits was creating the role of Von Trapp in The Sound of Music.
G: What were the circumstances under which "Edelweiss" came about? Was that written for you?
TB: It was written for me, yes. We were out of town for quite a number of weeks. First in New Haven, and then in Boston. And we were trying this and that: we did additional dialogue here, take away a scene there, you know, the way you shape a play before Broadway. And one fine day, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein came to me and said, "Listen, we were talking. I think you're being underused, because you have some talent that should come to the fore. And it's also useful for the play. So we decided to write you a song, to be used toward the end of the show. While they're having that concert and preparing to escape from the Nazis. This was eleven days before the opening on Broadway.
TB: That's when they wrote "Edelweiss." In a hotel room at the Ritz-Carlton which had a piano in it. And they sat down and wrote me a genuine old Austrian folk song. And it was put in the show the next night. And I sang it for the next two years every night. The interesting thing, it sounded so genuine that one time I came out the stage door and a woman said, "I love that song 'Edelweiss.' Of course I only know it in the original German."
G: (Laughs.) Right.
TB: And it was, interestingly enough, the last thing Oscar Hammerstein put lyrics to. He was quite ill and died shortly after we opened. And I sometimes tell this to audiences: the interesting thing is that the last word that this dying man wrote creatively was the word "forever."
G: That's a good place to end, which we have to do. It's been wonderful talking with you. I wish we had more time. Thank you.
TB: Thank you very much.