By Sandee Brawarsky
Fyvush Finkel, the long-time actor who first made his mark on the Yiddish stage and went on to star in mainstream productions on Broadway, off-Broadway and in television and film, died on August 14th at his home in New York. He was 93.
Throughout his varied career, Finkel honored his Yiddish roots. He recently told the Daily News that he was “the last of the Mohicans,” referring to his tenure in the Yiddish theater, dating back to its grandest days.
With eyes that were bulging, sparkling and ever-expressive, framed by thick eyebrows, Finkel was a familiar figure, a dapper dresser with an impish smile on his round face.
“Was there a funnier, kinder, more polite, gentlemanly, hilarious actor/entertainer/singer/artist/trouper-to-the-nth-degree?” asks Eleanor Reissa, a Tony-nominated director, actor and singer, who works in English and Yiddish.
“I don't think so,” she said. “He seemed to remember everything and everyone, every funny line and joke and fellow performer. He was the consummate professional and yet always so human and humane. It is a huge loss for this planet, as we will never know his likes again.”
At Finkel’s 93rd birthday celebratory performance at the Metropolitan Room, he told many classic Finkel jokes, funnier in his telling. Here, one of the briefest: “Jewish people don’t drink. It interferes with the suffering.”
Finkel was born in Brownsville, Brooklyn to immigrant parents; his father was a tailor and his mother a homemaker. At 9, his father saw an ad in the Yiddish press from a Yiddish theater around the corner looking for a young boy to sing – he showed up and got his first part on the Yiddish stage.
He would go on to play many other roles in the Yiddish theater on the Lower East Side, and then as a comedian in the Catskills and in Florida. In an interview on CUNY Television with Michael Stoller, the actor recalled playing at the Clinton Theater, between Rivington and Delancey Streets, where they would do four shows a night. One night, a man, seated next to his wife, was sleeping – and snoring – in the front row.
Finkel stopped the show, asked the woman if that was her husband and mentioned that he was snoring.
“So what do you want me to do,” she said.
“Wake him up,” he replied.
“You wake him up,” she said. “You put him to sleep.”
For twenty years, Finkel was a regular at Café Royal, on Second Avenue, a Yiddish theater hangout that was a place of deals and dates, as he recalled. In the off-Broadway show “Café Crown,” for which he won an Obie in 1988, he played the waiter he remembered from those earlier days, an opinionated man who walked like a penguin.
“I never got what I ordered anyway,” he said. That role led to his appearance on the television show “Picket Fences,” for which he won an Emmy in 1994.
“My first big hit,” he said. “At age 70.”
His other television credits include “Kojak,” “Boston Public” and “The Simpsons,” where he was the voice of Krusty the Clown, along with “Hollywood Squares.” He appeared in the films “Q&A,” “Brighton Beach Memories” and “A Serious Man” and, most recently, as himself in “Deli Man.”
“Fyvush is a wonderful part of ‘Deli Man’ — full of deli spice, mentschlekeit, effervescence and humor,” director Erik Greenberg Anjou wrote in an email. “When you work with a legend, you sit back, listen and learn. I did so at every opportunity and encounter with this mentsch of mentsches.”
In theater, he played Mordche the innkeeper in the inaugural cast of “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1964 and then played Lazar Wolf the butcher in the 1981 revival; he went on to play Tevye as well in theatres around the country. He also appeared in “Little Shop of Horrors.” In 1991, he presented “Finkel’s Follies,” an ode to Yiddish vaudeville, including sketches spanning 75 years.
About the revue, Finkel said, “They laugh more in English.”
For the Folksbiene, he appeared in the musical revue “Fyvush Finkel Live!” for which he earned a Drama Desk nomination in 2011. He appeared with his friend Theodore Bikel in a staged reading of “The Sunshine Boys” in Yiddish at Symphony Space in 2007, and later appeared with Bikel at Symphony Space in December 2013 in what turned out to be Bikel’s last public appearance in New York.
According to a spokesman for the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, Finkel was planning to make a special appearance at the off-Broadway show “The Golden Bride” on Thursday, August 18th. The NYTF will dedicate this week’s performances to his memory.
Bryna Wasserman, executive director of NYTF, said, “We have lost a dear, dear friend, really the oldest living link to the Yiddish theatre in its heyday.”
“Fyvush Finkel was iconic, he lived and breathed New York and New York theater,” NYTF artistic director Zalmen Mlotek said, describing him as “a true original, a piece of New York culture, a building block for what makes New York the great theater town it is.”
Fyvush Finkel made people around him smile for 93 years,” Executive Producer Chris Massimine, executive producer of NYTF, said.
Finkel is survived by his two sons who are musicians, as well as three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
When he was 85, he told Stoller, “I will not retire. I’m still working.”
Finkel and his two sons, Ian and Elliot, were planning an encore performance at the Metropolitan Room this October, to mark his 94th birthday.