When the original London production of Fiddler on the Roof was being cast in 1966, one of the actors invited to audition for the part of Tevye was the star of an Oscar-nominated Israeli film called "Sallah Shabati," in which the title character was the middle-aged patriarch of a large family. Chaim Topol recalls that when he was escorted into the Drury Lane Theatre and introduced to the producers and artistic team, they looked past him. "They were looking for this old man," he says. "They said, 'Is this a mistake? What part did you play in 'Sallah'? Were you the son?' They couldn't believe I'd played the father." That's because he was just 30.
He went onstage and sang "If I Were a Rich Man" and "Sunrise, Sunset," astounding his audience by incorporating movements and gestures from the show. Much to their surprise, they discovered he had played Tevye a year earlier, in the first Israeli production of Fiddler. Despite the fact that he was considerably younger than the character, Topol was cast to play the put-upon milkman trying to maintain his traditions in the Jewish village of Anatevka despite persecution, poverty and the encroachment of the outside world. "Until today I don't understand how they dared to take a guy my age to play the part in the West End," he says. "They were really brave."
More than 40 years later, Topol is perhaps the actor most closely identified with the role. He starred in the 1971 film adaptation of Fiddler, earning an Oscar nomination, and received a Tony nomination for his performance in a 1991 Broadway revival. He has played Tevye more than 2,500 times on stages all over the world. And now, at 73, he's back in the role and on the road again in what is being billed as his farewell tour — although he's not really certain that he will be finished with Tevye when the tour ends.
"I love this show," he says. "I enjoy playing the role every night. I last did it two or three years ago, and I was longing to come back to it. The part of Tevye is one of the five or six best roles ever written for a male actor–singer." He is now a few decades older than Tevye, and believes that the passage of time has burnished his performance. "When you are young, you have to imagine what it's like to give your daughter away to a stranger who comes along," he says. "You have to imagine what it means to be married 25 years, and how difficult it is to maintain a good relationship and to bring up children in the right way. But I've been married for more than 50 years, and I know how lucky it is to be successful in marriage when so many are collapsing. I know exactly what it means to stand under the canopy with your children, and pray that things will go smoothly for them, and worry that they won't. I don't have to imagine it. I believe that it's much more natural for me now, and that is projected to the audience. The same is true with every human relationship in the play. These are all experiences that I've had in my life, and they flow naturally now. "
Although he will forever be thought of as Tevye, Topol has had a long and varied career. He began acting while serving in the Israeli army and was a founding member of the Haifa Municipal Theatre. He has appeared in close to 30 films, and his stage roles include Othello, Azdak in Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle, Jean in Ionesco's Rhinoceros and Eddie Carbone in Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge. Last summer he played Honoré Lachaille in Lerner and Loewe's Gigi at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, London.
"I've been very fortunate to deal with great material, important material," he says. "But there's nothing like doing Fiddler. The material touches everyone, and the response is the same everywhere in the world. They laugh and cry and sigh in the same places. The issues brought up in the play are very easy to identify with: the relationship between a husband and wife; the relationship between a father and his daughters; the relationship between a man and the Almighty, or whatever he believes in; the relationship of a man with his animal; the relationship between a person and his neighbors. There's something for everyone. Although Fiddler depicts a Jewish community in a village in Russia, I have been told that when a Greek sees the show in Athens, he is sure that the guys who break in to the wedding and do that little pogrom are Turks. And when you do the show in Istanbul, the Turks think those people are Greek. The audience just gets so involved. And the joy of the music — you feel that they are dancing with you, they are singing with you. That's why I love coming back to the part. Fiddler is really a phenomenon."