Way back in 1965, an actor named Chaim Topol, unknown in America, arrived in Los Angeles, staying at the cheapest possible hotel with fellow Israeli Ephraim Kishon, the popular satirical writer.
The two had put together a film called “Sallah Shabbati,” later shortened to “Sallah,” about a middle-aged North African Sephardic immigrant and his large family, who came to Israel in the 1950s with nothing but his native wit to confront the formidable Israeli bureaucracy, rigid kibbutz ideology, sleazy politics, high-class Ashkenazi yekkes (immigrants from Germany) and other facets of Israeli life.
Hardly anyone here knew there was such a thing as Israeli movies, and the American rights were bought for a pittance by a New York immigrant furrier who perhaps hoped to make a couple of bucks showing “Sallah” at synagogue socials.
To everyone’s amazement, “Sallah” was picked as one of five foreign-language films nominated for Oscar honors, a rare instance of Academy perceptiveness. In the views of many critics, this one included, “Sallah” is the best and funniest film ever to come out of Israel.
In short order, the furrier, his mishpoche, Topol and Kishon, all equally clueless, arrived in Los Angeles to “promote” their baby.
Topol was then 29 years old, but looked like a graduate student, and he knew just one person in L.A.—Dan Almagor, an Israeli playwright and translator of Shakespearean and contemporary plays into Hebrew, including “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Dan took over as budget-less campaign manager, and some of his stunts to bring “Sallah” to public and media knowledge are still legendary.
As a close personal friend, he “hired” me as press and PR director, and while we all had a lot of fun, “Sallah” didn’t win an Oscar. I collected all of $50, after threatening to sue the furrier, but the experience was priceless.
Well, 44 years later, Topol is coming is coming to town again, on the final leg of a 20-city American tour of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which is opening July 21 at the Pantages Theatre.
In a phone call to Chicago, I asked Topol how many times he had played the role of the immortal Tevye on the stage, and the actor paused to think.
“I stopped counting after 2,500 performances,” he said, “Probably 2,700 is about right.”
After all these nights and years on the world’s stages, how does the now 73-year old actor keep each performance fresh and challenging?
“That’s the job of an actor,” he replied. “Whether I play the same role 40, 1,000 or 2,500 times, I have to convince you that the line or song just jumped into my mind at this very moment.
“Of course, in different periods of my life, I look at the part in different ways. When I first had Tevye ask his wife Golde, after 25 years of marriage, “Do You Love Me?,” I myself had been married for 10 years, and I thought, ‘25 years of marriage, that’s a very long time.’
“Now we’ve been married for 52 years and I think, ‘what’s 25 years? We were children then.’”
Topol recalls another example. “When Tevye’s daughter marries, and he has to give her away to a stranger, the first time I did this, I had an 8-year old daughter and had to imagine an experience that was far in the future.
“Now my lovely little daughter is 51 years old; she’s been married 25 years, and I now know exactly how I felt when she was under the chuppah, I don’t have to imagine it.”
Besides his 2,700 stage appearances, uncounted viewers in just about every country in the world have seen Topol in the 1971 film version, for which he won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar.
It can be argued that Tevye is the best-known Jew in the world (perhaps in a tie with the late Albert Einstein), and that Topol is the world’s foremost expert on the character of Tevye.
What then, I asked, accounts for Tevye’s universal appeal in places whose inhabitants have never heard of a shtetl, let alone Anatevka?
“Tevye is made of the genes of my grandfather and of my grandfather’s grandfather,” he responded. “Many times, when Tevye talks, I think, ‘That’s what my grandfather would have said.’
“Furthermore, Tevye is a well-constructed character. I’ve seen him performed in high schools, or by amateur groups, and he always comes across. I’m not being modest, but you have to be a real schlemiel to ruin that part.”
But perhaps the real key to Tevye’s universal appeal is that in most countries, people do not see Tevye as a Jew.
“I’ve played Tevye in Japan, in English, and the Japanese come up to me afterwards and tell me that Tevye reminds them of their uncle or grandfather. Middle-aged men say the play reminds them of arguments with their daughters or with a difficult neighbor,” Topol recalled.
“To a Croatian audience, the anti-Semitic Cossacks become Serbs and to a Greek audience they are Turks, and so on.”
On some people, the impact of Tevye is even deeper and more personal. “I’ve had people come up to me and tell me that after seeing the show, they’ve converted to Judaism, and some non-practicing Jews who said that they have returned to the fold.”
Chaim Topol, a Tel Aviv native, got his first taste of the limelight during his military service in an army theater group, where, among other parts, the 19-year played the title role in “Othello.”
He has frequently returned to his Shakespearean beginnings, playing in the Hebrew versions of “King Lear” and “The Taming of the Shrew,” again in “Othello,” this time in English in front of British audiences.
After his army service he founded a satirical theater group, called The Spring Onions, and later the Haifa Municipal Theatre, where he portrayed Azdak in Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” and Jean in Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros.”
His film resume lists 30 American and Israeli films, starting with “Sallah,” whose success led to an invitation in 1967 to open “Fiddler” in London’s West End, which, in turn, got him the lead in Norman Jewison’s film version of the musical.
Asked to look back on his impressive career, Topol ruminates a few seconds and says, “I’ve been very lucky, but I’m also a hard worker. I can stand on the stage eight times a week and carry a difficult part,” quickly adding, “Poo, poo, poo, kineahora,” the magical incantation to ward off the Evil Eye.
What Topol really wants to talk about is the Jordan River Village (www.jordanrivervillage.org), located in the Lower Galilee, between Haifa and Tiberias, and scheduled to open next year.
The Village will provide free services for youth, ages 8-19 years, with chronic or life-threatening diseases such as cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, neurological disorders and rheumatic and heart diseases.
Topol, who serves as the project’s chairman of the board, said he was inspired and mentored by the late Paul Newman, who six years ago took the Israeli actor on a tour of his Hole in the Wall camps for severely ill children.
The Village will annually accommodate some 4,500 children of all faiths and nationalities, including, Topol hopes, kids from Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. The Israeli government provides 20 percent of the Village’s budget.
“Fiddler’s” current seven-month tour is billed as Topol’s “North American Farewell Tour,” but the actor begs to differ.
“I’m now on my second or third ‘farewell tour’,” he notes. “I hope when I’m 80, I’ll be back.”
“Fiddler on the Roof” will open at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, with two preview performances on July 21 and 22. The July 21 show is billed as “Matchmaker Night” and is co-sponsored by JDate and The Journal. For this performance only, go to www.broadwayla.org/matchmaker and enter code “JDate” for reduced ticket prices.
For tickets for all other performances, visit the Pantages box office at 6233 Hollywood Blvd. (corner Vine), in person, or go to www.broadwayla.org, or phone Ticketmaster at (800) 982-2787.
Following the Los Angeles run, the musical will move to Costa Mesa for an Aug. 11-23 run at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.