Topol as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. 
Photo: Screenshot via Twitter
Topol as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Photo: Screenshot via Twitter
Fiddler no more

It’s not goodbye, Tevye

Oscar-nominee, Israel Prize laureate, philanthropist and grumbling milkman, Chaim Topol has passed away. He made the role of Tevye his own and brought such joy to millions around the world. The AJN explores the legacy Topol has left behind.

Chaim Topol crooned about tradition thousands of times. He asked Golde if she loved him, shared what he would do if he were a rich man, sang the Shabbat prayer and reminisced about his daughter being just a little girl more than 3500 times on stage.

Now, his voice has gone quiet.

The actor died late last week at the age of 87 in Tel Aviv after a multi-year battle with Alzheimer’s.

But the memories for us all remain as loud as ever.

“Sadly, the fiddler on the roof is no longer with us,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote on Twitter. “The strings of the fiddle have fallen silent. The story of Chaim Topol’s life has been sealed but I am certain that his contribution to Israeli culture will live on for generations.”

The official Twitter account for Israel wrote, “To many of you, he was Tevye, to us Chaim Topol was a national treasure, a cultural icon and above all a human being who loved his country. Today we celebrate his life and legacy from Tel Aviv to Anatevka. Lechaim.”

And many celebrities took to social media to pay tribute to the actor who influenced their own Hollywood ambitions.

Actor Josh Gad wrote, “There is no way to overstate how much this man & this performance meant to me. #Topol is a large reason why I became an actor. In fact, his performance of Tevye in Fiddler was the very first performance I ever saw on a Broadway stage. RIP to a great. #SunriseSunset”.

Adam Sandler shared, “[I] absolutely loved this man growing up and thank him for all he gave.”

While he was Tevye the milkman of Fiddler on the Roof fame – first in stage productions of the famed musical based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem and later in the iconic film, before eventually returning to the stage with the role – he also played James Bond’s wingman in For Your Eyes Only, opposite Roger Moore, and a nutty professor in the 1980s cult classic Flash Gordon.

And long before Israelis like supermodel Bar Refaeli and Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot made their names internationally, Topol was winning Golden Globe awards as his country’s most famous ambassador to Hollywood. At the age of almost 80, and still involved in theatre, he was also awarded the Jewish state’s most prestigious honour – the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement in 2015.

Topol’s mark on not only the entertainment world, but also the philanthropic world, was huge (and often underestimated).

Later in his life, he revealed that he built a holiday home for Arab and Jewish children with incurable diseases, explaining that it was “the most important thing I have ever done. All the rest is little episodes.” The Jordan River Village is Israel’s only free, fully accessible, overnight retreat which hosts year-round recreational programs for children living with chronic illnesses, life-threatening diseases, disabilities and special needs.

“The children have a wonderful time,” he told The AJN in 2016. “These are very sick children, suffering from very bad illnesses. They never get to leave home. It’s an opportunity for them to become more independent.

“They meet other children who are suffering from the same illness … They share their experience, and they coexist together unbelievably well.”

He also continued to serve in the Israeli Defence Forces every year throughout his career – no matter what production he was filming or performing in – until age made him ineligible.

“I wasn’t brought up in Hollywood. I was brought up in a kibbutz here and I started to work at the age of 14 in a printing house,” he told Times of Israel when he was awarded the Israel Prize. “Obviously, when you are successful in a film and the money flows, yes, obviously, it is very nice. But to tell you that is the most important thing, I am not sure.”

Topol got his start in acting in a theatrical troupe in the Israeli army in the 1950s. It was during this time when he met his future wife, Galia, a fellow comedian. He then stated his own satirical revue company, Batzal Yarok (Green Onion), explaining that the name was chosen to “convey the idea of something fresh, sharp and spicy”.

His first major breakthrough was the lead role in the ground-breaking 1964 Israeli film Sallah Shabati, about the hardships of Middle Eastern immigrants to Israel. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and earned Topol his first Golden Globe Award.

Two years later, he made his English-language film debut alongside Kirk Douglas in Cast a Giant Shadow. But the role of his life arrived in the long-running musical Fiddler on the Roof, in which he played a Jewish father trying to maintain his people’s cultural traditions amid tumult in their Russian shtetl.

It was during the four-year run of Fiddler on the Roof at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London in the late 1960s, to enthusiastic reviews, that the actor simply became known as “Topol”. According to lore, the producers of the show were struggling to pronounce “Chaim” so with Topol’s permission, it was omitted from the playbill.

After years of playing Tevye on stage in London and on Broadway, he scored the lead role in the 1971 Norman Jewison-directed film version, winning the Golden Globe for lead actor and being nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award.

It’s estimated that the film has been seen by more than one billion people around the world and until recently, Topol was still fielding requests to reprise his role or perform the famous songs. Topol continued to play the character on stage around the world, including in a Broadway revival that earned him a Tony nomination. He farewelled the character with a tour across the USA in 2009.

“How could anyone be sick of playing Tevye?”

While he began his career as Tevye at age 30, using makeup and costume to appear older, he wrapped up his time in the role when he was nearing 75, drawing on a seemingly endless well of vigour to appear younger.

Being known for one part never seemed to faze the actor. While for years following the Fiddler run in London, Topol declined invitations to reprise the role, he has said he was not complaining that he was forever associated with the milkman trying to hold tight to tradition.

“How many people are known for one part? How many people in my profession are known worldwide? So I am not complaining,” he said in 2015.

“Sometimes I am surprised when I come to China or when I come to Tokyo or when I come to France or when I come wherever and the clerk at the immigration says ‘Topol, Topol, are you Topol?’ So yes, many people saw [Fiddler], and it is not a bad thing.

“How could anyone be sick of playing Tevye?” he asked The AJN.

In Australia, he was beloved, visiting us on several occasions to play his iconic Fiddler role.

Elisa Grey, who is currently rehearsing for the part of Golde in the upcoming MLOC production of Fiddler in Melbourne, performed alongside Topol on the steps of the Regent Theatre in 1998 as the audience arrived on opening night.

“There was a buzz in the air because everyone was coming to see Topol,” she recalled. “It was even more incredible to attend the opening night party and to meet him in person. That was a once in a lifetime experience!”

Adrian Glaubert, co-director of the MLOC production, said that Topol inspired him to go into musical theatre.

“Most people’s first experience with Fiddler on the Roof is from viewing the movie-musical and Topol has set the benchmark on who Tevye is and how the story is meant to be told. There have been many incredible and iconic Tevyes that have performed the role, from Zero Mostel to Alfred Molina, Anthony Warlow to one of my personal favourites Danny Burstein. But no one was in higher demand and embodied the role of Tevye than Chaim Topol,” Glaubert said.

“I know his legacy will continue to inspire future generations globally, as Fiddler is performed somewhere in the world every single day.”

Comments flooded a post on The AJN’s social media pages announcing Topol’s passing, with many expressing profound sadness.

“His voice gave me goosebumps,” one person wrote, with another saying, “He always seems to have a twinkle in his eye. The one and only Tevye…”

Many from the Melbourne community recall Topol’s performances with comments including, “We remember seeing him perform several times and even dovened with him at East Melbourne shule during one of the Fiddler seasons in Melbourne. A true legend of the stage,” and, “My claim to fame was that he hugged me outside the theatre in Melbourne after his Tevye performance. Such a lovely, caring man”.

Many described him as down to earth, beautiful inside and out and, of course, the ultimate mensch.

Topol is survived by his wife, children and grandchildren, and a whole community around the world who will forever hold on to his glorious voice and loveable character.

With Times of Israel

Aussie Love Affair

One of the biggest events in Australian theatre in 1998 was the hit musical Fiddler on the Roof starring Chaim Topol, who had played the role of Tevye for more than 30 years in productions around the world.

Souvenir program
for Fiddler on the Roof.

Topol’s arrival in Melbourne was big news, and as arts editor for The AJN I met him for an interview in his suite on the 40th floor of the Sofitel hotel. Looking across the panoramic views of the city, he asked where the East Melbourne synagogue was located – he had already been in contact with friends in the Jewish community and had been invited to attend shule on Shabbat.

Topol was delightful to chat with and generous with his time, happy to talk about his career.

And he took his job seriously, attending all rehearsals despite having performed in Fiddler on the Roof almost 2000 times.

In my opening-night review of Fiddler, under the headline “Topol is tops!” I wrote that just to see Topol on stage was worth the price of the ticket.

Australian Jewish producers Aleksandar Vass and Tim Lawson were instrumental in bringing Topol to Melbourne in 1998, and the Israeli star returned for a national tour in 2005-06.

Paying tribute to Topol this week, Lawson told The AJN: “Topol was a powerhouse of a man, ever so talented, ever so kind, ever so charitable and ever so cheeky.

“I was lucky enough to be his producer on Fiddler over eight seasons in Australia and New Zealand, and they were such happy times.

“The world is poorer without Topol.”

Topol’s first trip to Australia was in 1972 to visit his sister and her husband in Perth where they were working as Habonim shlichim.


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