Fyvush Finkel, arguably the last significant living link to New York’s once-thriving Yiddish theater, and an inventive performer preternaturally adept at elongating a career that might have sputtered out decades ago, died August 14 in Manhattan. He was 93.
Outside a Chase bank branch at East 10th Street and Second Avenue—the street that was once the central artery of Manhattan’s Yiddish Theater community—inlaid into the sidewalk are plaques honoring the one-time stars of that world. The plates were put there by the owner of the Second Avenue Deli, a landmark eatery that once sat at that address.
To younger generations, only one of those names is recognizable today: Fyvush Finkel. Though other stars of Yiddish Broadway burned brighter in their day, none proved longer lasting than Mr. Finkel.
In the 1980s, he found work on Broadway in revivals of Fiddler on the Roof and Café Crown (for which he received an Obie Awards and a Drama Desk Award nomination), and Off-Broadway playing flower shop owner Mushnick in the musical Little Shop of Horrors.
In the 1990s, he told his own story through several stagings of his self-conceived revue Finkel’s Follies, executing jokes and routines from his earlier days as a performer.
His persistence paid off. In 1992, he was drafted by David E. Kelley to play the bombastic lawyer Douglas Wambaugh in the series Picket Fences, a whimsical drama set in the fictional town of Rome, Wisconsin. The series from from 1992 to 1996 and won Mr. Finkel an Emmy Award in 1994, as well as several other award nominations.
Picket Fences introduced a new audience to Mr. Finkel, who thereafter had a thriving career as a television character actor, appearing in Chicago Hope (again as Wambaugh), Early Edition, a revival of the series Fantasy Island, Harry’s Law, and Blue Bloods. He won another role on a long-running series when he was cast as history teacher Harvey Lipschultz on Boston Public, which ran from 2000 to 2004.
Film roles from this time period included Nixon, The Pickle, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Q&A, Mobsters, and A Serious Man.
Philip Finkel was born October 9, 1922, in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. His father was a tailor from Warsaw, his mother a housewife. He took to acting early on, first appearing on a stage at the age of 9. New York’s Yiddish theater was already on the decline by the time Mr. Finkel arrived, but he managed to sustain a career performing in Yiddish-speaking production for nearly 35 years. He also worked at the resorts in the Catskills and in Yiddish theaters in other cities.
After the long, slow fade-out of that world, he made his Broadway debut in Fiddler on the Roof, replacing in the small role of Mordcha. He recreated the same role in the 1981 revival of the musical, and understudied the role of Lazar Wolfe, the butcher, who sings “To Life.” He eventually played the lead role of Tevye in a touring production.
As Mr. Finkel’s career improbably thrived as he got older, and memories of the old Yiddish theater started to fade, the actor took on the role of ambassador and popular historian of that forgotten theatrical world.
He married Trudi Liebermain 1947. She predeceased him in 2008. He is survived by their two sons, Ian and Elliot.
Even when playing to a few people in a small black box theater, Mr. Finkel was known to give his all in true trouper fashion.
“I keep telling performers, ‘Not only do you owe them a good performance, you also owe them love,’” he once said. “’If you love them, they love you 10 times more. It is not the producers that pay your wages; they do. If they don't like you, you're not going to get work. But if they love you, they'll put you in comfort.'”