Last week YIVO sent out a very special e-mail. It contained a link to Theodore Bikel’s last public performance, at the organization’s 13th Annual Heritage Luncheon on June 18. Bikel was the principle honoree, recipient of YIVO’s lifetime achievement award, and in a video clip (which can be seen on YouTube) he sits very erect in his wheelchair, guitar on his lap, singing “Di zun vet aruntergeyn/The Sun Soon Will Be Setting.” The song is a collaboration between the great Yiddish poet Moishe Leib Halpern and composer Ben Yomen, but the English adaptation is by Bikel himself, who sings at one point, “we’ll fly/Leaving earth far below/To a land where all longing does go.”
The voice is not as booming as it once was, there is just the slightest tremor, but it is unmistakably Bikel’s and, as always, he doesn’t just sing the song, he inhabits it.
That’s what great actors do with a text. And Bikel, make no mistake about it, was a great actor.
Of course Bikel was a central figure in the folk-music movement of the ’50s and early ’60s. Unlike the other movers and shakers in the folkie world, he didn’t limit himself to simplified versions of American forms; he sang in 23 different languages, songs from Russian, Italian, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Zulu, English, Scots Gaelic, German and Yiddish. Before there was something called “world music,” he was world music.
Yiddish, however, always had a special, personal place in his heart and his repertoire.
Towards the end of 2013, Bikel told The Jewish Week, “I’d like to be remembered for the fact that I am passionate about the survival of Yiddish as a language, as poetry, as literature, as the haimish, homebound language of my people.”
As delightful as his many recordings are, as pivotal as his advocacy for the mamaloshen was, it is as an actor, I think, that Bikel leaves a particular mark. The parts weren’t always large. His film career is a compendium of supporting roles, the kind of character parts that inevitably become the lot of someone who has an accent, is too stocky to be a romantic figure, and too unconventional-looking, even if he spent hours in the gym getting ripped. On stage and, to an extent, on television, Bikel moved up to character leads like Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.” And, of course, Captain von Trapp, the role he originated in “The Sound of Music,” might be considered a romantic lead, although the romance is perhaps the most antiseptic in any Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
But his lot was that of a character actor, whether he’s the “bad” German officer in “The Enemy Below” or “The African Queen,” the crafty Southern sheriff in “The Defiant Ones” or the sympathetic Russian submarine commander in “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming,” or any of the countless urban (and often urbane) denizens of New York streets in TV shows like “Naked City” and “Law and Order.”
Like so many character actors of his generation, Bikel got his chance to shine in golden-age TV drama series like “Play of the Week,” where he had the lead in “The Dybbuk”; “Studio One in Hollywood,” which gave him an opportunity to play Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; or most tellingly in a superb Sam Peckinpah version of “Noon Wine” opposite Jason Robards and Olivia de Havilland, on the short-lived “ABC Stage 67.”
What unites this oddly assorted gallery of schemers, dreamers and ordinary guys is the core of basic integrity and decency that Bikel brings to almost every role he assumed. It’s the same intent, focused emotional intelligence and nuance that he brought to every song he sang in all those languages. During that 2013 interview, I asked him if he approached playing heavies any differently than heroes, and his answer was telling.
“An actor plays what an actor plays,” he replied. “Sometimes they’re heroes, sometimes they’re villains; you do whatever comes down the pike. You try to do it with as much expertise as you’re capable of, to let your skills as an actor take over.”
It was Theodore Bikel’s particular gift to do just that, to get inside a part, no matter its size, and live there. He brought the same enthusiasm to his life.
“The secret is, don’t hold back,” he told Jewish Week. “Live fully. Don’t treat yourself with kid gloves and don’t treat life that way either. Just live.”
George Robinson writes about music and film for the paper.