Picture, Topol As Tevye, in the film of Fiddler On The Roof
The passing of the internationally renowned and highly versatile actor, singer, illustrator, the Israeli, Topol, brings back personal and professional memories. These are no doubt, shared by many, who remember his artistry in his signature performance, of Tevye the milkman, in the great musical, Fiddler On The Roof. Although the Broadway star Zero Mostel had first performed the role, it was Topol, on stage in the Israeli and London versions, then as a result, the film, who is most associated with it. He also played one role Peter Ustinov wrote for himself, in his own play, Romanoff and Juliet, in a musical version, at Chichester, a couple of years after the film of “Fiddler.” At one point, Topol humourously remarked, he thought scripts he received probably had Peter Ustinov’s finger prints on them, after he rejected them, Topol got the offer! Many more will remember this larger than life personality for the much loved performance in the musical, though, that so beautifully expressed the feelings of the Jewish minorities of the Ukranian village in which it is set. Fiddler On The Roof, is an eternal cherished show. My individual memories though, are my own and I remember Topol fondly. Two separate occasions, for me, spring quickly to mind, for indeed I have thought of them over the years.
I had admired him as a boy, loved him in that film, saw him in anything on television I could. When, as a young teenager, my mother and brother and I discovered he was appearing in a play, we went to see him in it. It was A View From The Bridge, by Arthur Miller, in which, Topol was excellent. It was a heavy role in a heavy play, and he proved an actor more heavyweight than some realised. As we had to catch a train back and as it was quite a journey, we didn’t do what I so loved to do, go backstage and wait at the Stage Door. Imagine the surprise then, when, awaiting our train, on the platform, we saw the star of the show, running with a colleague, past the ticket collector, calling out, “we’ll pay on the train, we do not want to miss it, must get back!” The incredulous ticket collector, looked nonplussed, ” That’s Topol!” I and my family explained to her. ” Oh, er…?” She sought of, didn’t understand! On the train, we sat, in a nearly empty carriadge and listened as Topol discussed the production, with the colleague, obviously the director, listening to him, constructively, engaging in the ways and means to further improve the performance. Here was clearly a man who, though an admitedly, sometimes, loud personality, a real extrovert, was also one who could “take” direction and listen and converse with no “attitude.”
About a decade later, I was appearing as a young performer in one of my very first professional acting roles. I became a member of The Actors Company at the Museum Of The Moving Image, in London, also working as a cartoonist there, in the animation section. While there, it coincided with a Gala Celebration of the History Of The Cinema. For this, I had the great delight in working with one of my heroes, like Topol, and me, a fellow Virgo, Sir Richard, just made then, in fact, Lord, Attenborough. I was one of the actors in the Gala, in which, along with clips of film, narrated by Richard Attenborough as Host, we actors, paying tribute to the years of early experimentation, mimed a performance, the climax of which, was one line, exclaimed, by…me! As the first proper moving image ever, appeared on screen, that, famously, of a train coming, funnily enough, into a station, my line was, ” By golly, the thing’s moving!” And thus, the show came to its Fiinale. After the performance, there was a drinks reception, where, as the actors, we milled amongst the great and the good. During the course of that gathering, I had a conversation with Sir John Mills, who I saw, then in his late eighties, sitting with his wife the writer Mary Hayley Bell, being left alone by most, but not by me, as I joined them, asking if they minded, which they most definitely did not, for they discovered my admiration for them, was great and genuine. And it was an honour indeed for such a young newcomer to such an event, to find myself with fellow actors, chat to the guest of honour, then a very young middle aged and delightful Prince Charles, now King! But, it was also on that day, at that drinks reception, that another guest at the Gala, came up to me, not I him.
“May I say, how much we enjoyed your presentation and the performance!” He said. I could hardly believe it, as I turned to the man, now congratulating me, Topol! He said, “May I introduce you to Ady my daughter!” For he was accompanied by her there. He was indeed now as delighted as me, when I told him what it meant to be complimented by a man I had admired as a performer for years, had seen on screen, and stage, and, yes, train! And here he was complimenting me on delivering a mime and one line, on seeing…a train! He was in London, appearing with his daughter on stage playing his daughter, in a revival of Fiddler On The Roof. And which, I told him, I already planned to see, and which I did, later, with my wife. As we chatted and laughed I had the feeling I was engaging with a “character.”
Topol played that one character, not his own, whom he made his own, more than three and a half thousand times, on stage, as well as screen. He became, Tevye, for many. But he was more. He was the founder of Variety Israel, that helps children with special needs. He was the founder and Chairman of Jordan River Village that helps children enjoy a holiday, who are very seriously aflicted with health conditions, and does so for children who are both Jewish and Arab, where, as Topol said, “they hug!” rather than hate, each other. And he was the recipient of the Israel Prize, the highest Cultural honour in Israel, presented by the Israeli President. He was all these.
But, in that same show he made his own, there is a song, called “L’chaim, To Life!” Topol sings it as Tevye, but it could be, as himself. For to me this larger than life man and performer, will be remembered as the open minded man on that train, and the open hearted one at that Gala. And, his first name, was, Chaim!
I celebrate his life, and life! “L’chaim, to life!”