Chaim Topol: Israeli actor beloved for his role in Fiddler on the Roof

From military service to an Oscar nomination, Topol followed a unique path to stardom

Chaim Topol in Fiddler on the Roof in 1971
Chaim Topol in Fiddler on the Roof in 1971
(Image credit: RDB/Ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Topol, who has died aged 87, was loved by generations of film and theatregoers for his portrayal of Tevye, the “soulful shtetl milkman” in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, said The New York Times.

The part had been created on Broadway by Zero Mostel; but when the film version came to be made in 1971, its director, Norman Jewison, insisted that the role – “one of the most coveted” in Hollywood – should go instead to Topol, an Israeli actor who was scarcely known in the US. The film won him an Oscar nomination, and made him a star.

In the decades that followed, he would reprise the role on stage countless times, becoming, in the words of The Jerusalem Post, “Israel’s most famous export since the Jaffa orange”. Chaim Topol (professionally, he went by only his last name) was born in Tel Aviv in 1935.

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Topol in a field during the filming of The Storm Breaks

Topol in The Storm Breaks in 1981
(Image credit: ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

His parents – a plasterer and a seamstress – had emigrated from Poland to what was then British-mandated Palestine in the early 1930s; both were Zionists. Topol trained for a career as a printer, but during military service an officer heard him regaling his fellow troops with jokes – and had him transferred to an entertainment unit.

He caught the theatre bug, and back in civilian life he and some of his former comrades – including his future wife Galia – settled on a kibbutz, where they formed a theatre group. He then co-founded the Haifa Municipal Theatre, before establishing himself as a film actor with his role in the 1964 drama Sallah.

The film was an international hit, and his performance, as an old man, won him a Golden Globe, and an invitation to play Tevye in a Hebrew-language version of Fiddler in Tel Aviv.

Topol performing at the SeriousFun London Gala 2013

Topol performing at the SeriousFun London Gala 2013
(Image credit: David M. Benett/Getty Images)

A year later, and still in his 20s, he was cast in the first London production. Speaking almost no English, he had to learn the songs phonetically, by listening to the Broadway cast album, but its producers were impressed by his ability to inhabit the body of an older man, and his rich rendition of songs such as If I Were a Rich Man.

The show was a hit, but after four months, Topol left to return to Israel and entertain the troops fighting the Six Day War. Jewison had seen him in London, and fought for his casting in the film, saying Tevye should be played by a “third-generation European” who “understood the background” – a swipe at Mostel, who’d laced the script with ad-libbed New York Jewish jokes.

The film was nominated for eight Oscars. Topol had many other roles, in everything from Brecht’s Galileo to the Bond film For Your Eyes Only. But he was still playing Tevye in his late 70s, when, as he observed, he no longer had to make an effort to comfort himself like an old man. And he remained indelibly associated with the role. He didn’t mind, he said. “How many people are known for one part? How many people in my profession are known worldwide? So I am not complaining.”

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