Born in 1924, Theodore Bikel was 13 when Hitler and Göring paraded with their invading army beneath his apartment window on Mariahilferstrasse – one of the main thoroughfares in Vienna. He and his parents were able to leave six months later for Palestine. Already fluent in Hebrew, Yiddish and German with a respectable command of English and French, he intended to study and teach comparative linguistics – but many other talents intervened.
Theodore Bikel’s theatre life began at age 19 as a student actor in the Habima Theatre in Israel. Soon after, in 1944, he co-founded The Cameri Theatre in which he worked for several years before entering the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, from which he graduated with honors. He then appeared in several West End plays including A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Vivien Leigh at the invitation and under the direction of Sir Laurence Olivier, and The Love of Four Colonels by and with Peter Ustinov.
He was invited to America to appear on Broadway in Tonight in Samarkand and has since appeared in many memorable stage performances: The Lark, The Rope Dancers, I Do! I Do!, The Sunshine Boys, My Fair Lady, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, The Chosen, The Gathering, About Time, The Disputation, Shylock (Wesker) and Zorba. He created the role of Captain von Trapp on Broadway in The Sound of Music opposite Mary Martin, and in the past four decades he has played the role of Tevye over 2000 times in Fiddler on the Roof.
Theodore Bikel has also enjoyed a rich film career. He made his film debut in THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951), and he has since made more than 35 including The Enemy Below (1957), The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (1966), The Little Kidnappers (1953), My Fair Lady (1964), I Want to Live! (1958) and The Defiant Ones (1958), for which he received an Academy Award nomination.
Bikel has starred in many of the top dramatic shows on TV including Law & Order, JAG, All in the Family, Dynasty, Murder, She Wrote, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Babylon 5, Little House on the Prairie, The Twilight Zone, L.A. Law and Columbo. He portrayed Henry Kissinger in the TV movie The Final Days (1989), and in 1988 he received a Los Angeles Area Emmy Award for his portrayal of Harris Newmark on public television.
He has been active for many years in Actors’ Equity Association, serving as vice president for nine years and president for nine years. During that time he argued for the establishment of a National Council on the Arts, established federally supported housing for actors, helped establish the Actors Federal Credit Union and wrote the Equity regulations regarding protection for Equity members in shows were nudity is required.
As vice president of the International Federation of Actors (FIA) for 10 years, he argued for international cooperation with actors’ unions and guilds behind what was then the Iron Curtain. He is currently president of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America (4As) and was appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 to serve a five-year term on the National Council for the Arts. With Oliver Sacks, he testified before Congress regarding the arts and senior citizens: seniors as artists and seniors as audience.
On the national scene, Theodore Bikel was a delegate to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and played a significant role in the civil rights movement, participating in marches and voter registration drives in the South and playing concerts throughout the country – concerts whose content was the message of equality for all people. He was jailed for his witness to these principles and for his work on behalf of Soviet Jewry.
Theodore Bikel is also an accomplished translator of song lyrics. His book Folksongs and Footnotes, published by Meridian Books in 1961, has had three reprint editions. He was a co-founder of the Newport Folk Festival in 1961. He has released numerous CDs including In My Own Lifetime, a bouquet of theatre songs, and Our Song, a compilation of duets with renowned cantor Alberto Mizrahi. His updated autobiography Theo was published by the University of Wisconsin Press.