Israeli actor Chaim Topol, primarily known for his role as the milkman of Fiddler on the Roof who sang of the importance of tradition in the face of changes in its shtetl from Russia, died this Thursday at his home in Tel Aviv at the age of 87. Topol gained fame, awards, and an Oscar nomination for this character, Tevye, in Norman Jewison’s hit 1971 film version, but he has played him an estimated 3,500 times in the musical, in Hebrew and English, since 1966 until its last function in 2009. Topol’s legacy will be marked by his interpretation of an iconic song: If I Were a Rich Man (If I were rich).
The president of Israel, Isaac Herzog, has confirmed the death on Twitter, without detailing the cause. Topol suffered from Alzheimer’s for years. Herzog has described him as “one of the most outstanding Israeli scene artists” and recalled how he “filled the cinema screens with his presence, but above all he entered deeply into our hearts.”
Born in Tel Aviv in 1935, 13 years before the creation of the State of Israel, he began acting during his mandatory military service, with his unit’s theater company. There he met Galia, who would become his wife for six decades.
His career began rather in his twenties, in which he put on makeup to look older on stage. His key role came in 1964, with Sallah Shabbati, a seminal film in the history of Israeli cinema. It addresses the difficulties of a Mizrahi family (Jews from North Africa and the Middle East) in one of the transit camps where they were placed after emigrating to Israel. At a time of marked political and cinematographic hegemony of Ashkenazi Jews (Jews originating from central and eastern Europe), the work was a box office success in the country, won a Golden Globe and was the first nomination for a Israeli film for best foreign film, at a time when cinema prevailed burekas, as they were called (in a play on words with the spaghetti western) to comedies of questionable quality filled with stereotypes about Ashkenazi and Mizrahi.
The long jumpstarted his career both in Israel and abroad and would open the doors to his Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, for which it was Oscar nominee for Best Leading Actor. Topol was at peace with being remembered primarily for only one role. “How many people are known, to begin with? How many people in my profession are known worldwide? So I’m not complaining”, he pointed out in an interview with the Associated Press agency in 2015. The interpreter said that he was still surprised when he arrived at the airport in another country and the policeman who controlled the passports told him “Topol, Topol… what? Are you Topol?” “So yeah, a lot of people saw it (Fiddler on the Roof) and it is not a bad thing”, he concluded.
The success opened the doors to other roles until then far from his reach. “I didn’t grow up in Hollywood. I grew up in a kibbutz and I started working at the age of 14 in a printing press”, he pointed out in the interview. She starred Galileo (1975), Joseph Losey’s adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s play; was the scientist Hans Zarkov in flash gordon (1980) and the Greek smuggler Milos Columbo in the James Bond film Only for your eyes (1981), starring Roger Moore. On television, she played Polish Jew Berel Jastrow in the miniseries The Winds of War (1983) and in the sequel war memories (1988). He would go on to win a Tony Award and a Golden Globe for Best Actor. In Spain, he was awarded the Silver Shell at the San Sebastian Festival for best actor for his role in follow me, by Carol Reed.
He also arrived, albeit late, in 1990, on Broadway, to play Tevye. She brought her role to an end with a farewell tour of the United States in 2009, in which she numbered around 3,500 times she had played it.
Topol avoided talking about politics, although she did devote considerable time to charitable and philanthropic work, such as a project dedicated to sick and disabled children and their families. He was also an amateur painter. He made a series of portraits of Israeli presidents, which were included on stamps in 2013 so that part of the funds obtained from the sale of him would go to one of his solidarity projects.
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