Merriam or Webster ought to place a photo of Theodore Bikel right by the dictionary definition of polymath. Bikel is the ultimate multi-hyphenate. In a career that spans 70 years — he joined Israel’s Habima Theatre as an apprentice actor in 1943 — he’s had enviable careers as a film actor, a stage actor, a folk singer and recording artist and, as co-founder of the Newport Folk Festival, an entrepreneur. He even played a space rabbi on TV’s “Babylon 5.”
Throughout that time, both independently and as a union leader — he was president of Actor’s Equity in the late 1970s and early 1980s — he supported liberal causes, Israel, and human rights initiatives.
Bikel was born in Vienna, and left for Palestine after the 1938 Anschluss. He subsequently studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and debuted on the West End as Mitch (opposite Vivien Leigh) in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
On December 2, the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene honors Bikel (a few months prematurely) on his 90th birthday. Bikel spent a few minutes on the phone with the Forward from his home in Los Angeles to discuss his life, the upcoming celebrations — plural, as it turns out — and Vienna before the war.
Curt Schleier: You’ve had so many careers. Have you decided yet what you want to do when you grow up?