‘Fiddler’ In His Veins

‘Fiddler’ In His Veins

Wearing his father’s well-worn boots, Michael Bernardi carries on a family tradition that stretches back years.

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

Aug. 24, 2016, Editor's Note: This week Bernardi will take on the role of his father as Tevye in a matinee of Fiddler On The Roof. In honor of the occasion we have revived this story. He will wear his father's brown, leather Tevye boots at the perfomance, the NY Times reports.

Over in Anatevka, on Broadway, Michael Bernardi is pouring vodka for customers at the village inn, keeping the peace among rivals and occasionally breaking out into song and dance.

He’s dancing in the high boots worn by his father, the late Herschel Bernardi, who made his mark as Tevye on Broadway in the 1960s and then again in the 1980s. This production of “Fiddler on the Roof” is Michael’s Broadway debut. Aside from playing Mordcha the innkeeper, he is an understudy for the rabbi and also for Tevye. While he has rehearsed as Tevye, he hasn’t yet been called on to substitute for Danny Burstein.

To say that Michael was born into performing in this show is something of an understatement. In an interview near the Broadway Theatre, he says that his mother tells him that when she was in labor, Herschel sang the entire score of “Fiddler on the Roof” to calm her down. So Michael entered the world hearing “Sabbath Prayer” and “If I Were a Rich Man.”

Now, backstage before the curtain goes up, Michael practices an exercise his father would do before every performance: Looking into a mirror, breathing in, then closing his eyes, breathing out, and entering the world of Anatevka.

Herschel Bernardi was the third Broadway Tevye, after Zero Mostel pioneered the role, and Luther Adler followed briefly. When Herschel died suddenly of a heart attack in 1986, he was 62, and his son Michael was one year and a half.

The 31-year-old actor’s theater pedigree goes back further. His grandparents, Berel and Helen (Laina) Bernardi met in Berlin in 1899, when he (then known as Berl Topf) visited as an actor with a Yiddish troupe; she then joined him on stage and they moved to America in 1901. They married and performed in the Yiddish theater in New York, Canada and traveling productions across the U.S. When they played on Second Avenue in the 1920s, their son Hershel appeared onstage, in his mother’s arms, at 3 months old.

Herschel went on to perform in the Yiddish theater and in Yiddish films, such as the 1937 production of Peretz Hirschbein’s “Grine Felder” (Green Fields), directed by Edgar G. Ulmer and Jacob Ben-Ami. He made the transition to films, television and stage in English, playing the title role of “Zorba” on Broadway, as the star of his own television series “Arnie,” and in films including “The Front.” He knew the subject of that film well, as he had been blacklisted. He also did voiceovers, and for 25 years was the voice of Charley the Tuna for StarKist.

Michael is too young to have memories of his father, but he does remember his smell, in a pleasant way, and he’d experience it when he’d find some item of clothing that belonged to his father.

He wore his father’s full Tevye costume — sent to him by his mother — when he played the role for the first time in a production at the historic Priscilla Beach Theater in Plymouth, Mass., last year. When he tried on the garments, he says, he could sense his father’s presence in the room, along with his permission to wear them.

“It felt like a hug, an incredible hug I had been waiting for for over 30 years.”

Michael grew up in Los Angeles, on the edge of Beverly Hills, and attended Beverly Hills High School. His interests were football and theater, and he ultimately chose the stage. When he was younger and spent a lot of time with adults, family friends who enjoyed his humor around the table encouraged his mother to have him try out at the Comedy Store. By the time he was 8, he was a regular, getting the time slots usually reserved for veteran comedians. He was called Wonderboy (and later learned that his father was called Wunderkind, or Wonderboy, when he was a child in the Yiddish theater). After a couple of years of performing, he told his mother that he just wanted to quit and be a kid.

He studied acting at SUNY Purchase, where he did a one-man show, “My Father the Actor.” After graduating, he went back to Los Angeles, as there still were a few Bernardi relatives (including his father’s brother) who were active in the industry and could help him. But he arrived just as the Writers’ Strike was beginning in 2007. He returned to New York, did some acting and some odd jobs, and then returned to Los Angeles, determined to act. He took on some roles and grew disillusioned but kept at it, enrolling in graduate school at USC. After a couple of years in the program, he realized that he was “focusing on becoming a better actor, not on becoming a working actor” and set out to find work.

At the same time, he learned that his mother had breast cancer. “I had two thoughts. I would do everything in my power to take care of my mother. And I cannot have my mother leave this earth without her witnessing some form of success. She had been so much of a supporter.”

As he would soon be singing, “Life has a way of confusing us, blessing and bruising us.”

To his surprise, he got a call from an old friend about playing Tevye in Massachusetts. At first, he was terrified, but was able to “let go of any idea of being compared to my father. I was able to allow myself to feel his love and support.”

During his first performance, in the final scene when the townspeople are leaving Anatevka, “I got lost in the show. I realized that the connection is beyond my father, beyond my grandfather, that this play is bigger than all of us. It contains the spirit of survival, and it is about joy.”

While in Massachusetts, he heard that “Fiddler on the Roof” was going to be opening on Broadway, auditioned and got a part.

As for the boots, his mother brought them out before he went to Plymouth, and they were too small. Michael found a Los Angeles cobbler to fix them, and when he picked them up he was overwhelmed. When the cobbler asked what was wrong, Michael explained that these were the boots his father wore on Broadway. The shoemaker then said that his father used to have a business on Broadway before moving to Los Angeles and did the boots for “Fiddler” and other shows. The walls of the shop were lined with theater posters and photographs.

His mother, who has returned to good health, has been to New York several times to see the show. For Bernardi, it’s a dream come true, all around. For now, he lives in Midtown, and walks to the theater. As the bearded Mordcha, he likes to hang out at the Russian Vodka Room on West 52nd Street, where he can study the bartender for insight into his character. Toward the end of the play, as the shtetl dwellers are forced to leave Anatevka, Mordcha wonders out loud what he will do with 100 bottles of vodka.

When he plays the rabbi, his final line echoes: As the townspeople are ordered to leave and someone asks, “Rabbi, we’ve been waiting for the Messiah all our lives. Wouldn’t now be a good time for him to come?” The rabbi replies, “I guess we’ll have to wait someplace else.”

When he’s on stage as Tevye, he’ll get the last word.

The actor’s own spiritual life is in the theater. “My faith is something I actively strive for daily. Like Tevye, I ask questions to a vast unseen, unheard presence that only makes itself known in the most secret of ways. I find strength from the survival of Jewish culture, which teaches me that the nature of art is to defy all odds and continue to live. In short, I’ll share a quote shared from my father, shared with me by my mother: ‘Be a person.’”

Before we leave, I ask him to demonstrate his shimmy, the classic Tevye “biddy-biddy-biddy-biddy-biddy-biddy-biddy-bom,” and he obliges, with a quiet melody. Raising his arms, he takes small steps and shakes his lean torso, with a laughter-through-the-tears smile. There’s poetry and history in these movements.

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