Chaim Topol, a celebrated actor, singer, and illustrator, passed away in his native Tel Aviv March 9. He was 87. The news was announced by Isaac Herzog, president of Israel, on Twitter.
The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Topol originally intended to become a commercial artist before joining the Nahal entertainment troupe during his mandatory stint in the Israeli army. His natural talent quickly led to his riding to troupe commander, and he married a fellow troupe member, Galia Finkelstein, in 1956. Upon his formal discharge, he found work as a garage mechanic, supporting a family that grew to include three children while also organizing a kibbutz theatre company with his friends from Nahal.
In 1966, Mr. Topol began performing the role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, with which he would remain associated for the rest of his life. Making his debut in the Israeli premiere of the classic musical, producer Harold Prince had seen Mr. Topol in the Israeli film Sallah Shabati, and urged him to audition for the 1967 London production.
Mr. Topol, who was not yet fluent in English, memorized the score prior to the audition by listening to the original Broadway cast recording and working closely with a British friend. Still in his early 30s, his youth became a topic of debate during his audition for the typically older Tevye. Mr. Topol had a defense prepared, having memorized the English phrase "A good actor can play an old man, a sad face, a happy man. Makeup is not an obstacle." He was hired, and spent six months memorizing the script phonetically with Cecily Berry. Additionally, original director Jerome Robbins travelled to England to personally direct Mr. Topol in a reimagined version of the role rather than asking him to perform in the style of Broadway original, Zero Mostel.
Several months after opening Fiddler in the West End, Mr. Topol was forced to return to Israel for additional mandatory military service. Upon his return to England, he continued in the role for 430 performances. It was during this run that Mr. Topol began to be known eponymously, as English speaking producers found his Hebrew first name to be too difficult to pronounce.
In 1968, Mr. Topol was selected as the actor who would perform the role of Tevye in the film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof, beating out Zero Mostel, Danny Kaye, Herschel Bernardi, Rod Steiger, Danny Thomas, Walter Matthau, Richard Burton, and Frank Sinatra. In order to age Mr. Topol up for the screen, he wore a combined 30 pounds of makeup and costuming, as well as incorporating a locked muscle technique to give his body the appearance of over use.
For his performance, Mr. Topol received a Golden Globe and Donatello Award, as well as an Oscar nomination. In 1983, he reprised the role on the West End, and returned to the role for a fifth time in 1989 for a 30-city US tour, the first time he performed the role at the same age as the character. In 1990, he starred in a Broadway revival and received a Tony nomination, bringing the production back to London in 1994 followed by another tour.
He continued to perform the role of Tevye internationally, with both touring and sit-down productions in Israel and Australia throughout the next decade. He embarked on what was intended to be a farewell US tour in 2009, now in his 70s, but was forced to bow out during the Boston engagement due to a shoulder injury. He was replaced by Theodore Bikel and later, Harvey Fierstein. In 2014, he performed the role for the final time, appearing in a 50th anniversary tribute concert staged by the National Yiddish Theatre at New York City's Town Hall.
When asked to estimate the number of times he had performed the role of Tevye, Mr. Topol varied, with the likely number being in the vicinity of 4,000 performances, not including the film adaptation and its various takes.
Elsewhere in his career, Mr. Topol played Amiable in the musical The Baker's Wife during its pre-Broadway tour, but was let go mid-run following reports of a contentious relationship with co-star Patti LuPone. The show ultimately never made it to Broadway, with Topol or otherwise. He also appeared in more than 30 films, both in Israel and abroad, notably taking on the role of Miles Columbo in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only.
Topol returned to the West End twice outside of Fiddler on the Roof, playing the title role in Ziegfeld, and the Honoré in the 2008 revival of Gigi. As a voice actor, he dubbed many English films for Hebrew speaking audiences, including The Jungle Book and multiple Harry Potter films. He published his autobiography in 1981, and founded Variety Israel, an organization that supports disabled and neurodivergent children.
He never let go of his original dreams of being a visual artist, illustrating approximately 25 books in both Hebrew and English. In 2013, he illustrated a series of stamps commemorating Israeli presidents, and in 2014, his self portrait as Tevye was produced as a commemorative stamp honoring the 50th anniversary of Fiddler on the Roof.
In June 2022, Mr. Topol's son Omer revealed that his father has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Upon his death, numerous Israeli political figures released tributes, and prior to his burial at Kvutzat Shiller on March 10, a public memorial will be held at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv.
Mr. Topol is survived by his wife of 67 years, Galia, and his children, Omer, Adi and Anat.