By the age of 80, most people have retired. But 85-year-old Fyvush Finkel has no such plans. “I’m going to keep going until I expire,” the gregarious performer said with a laugh. “There was once an actress called Sarah Bernhardt, and she made 50 years of farewell appearances. I’ll make at least 20, and I’m starting now.”
First up on the Finkel farewell tour is David Ives’s play “New Jerusalem,” running through February 3 at the Classic Stage Company in New York City. In the show, which focuses on the 1656 banishment of philosopher Baruch de Spinoza from Amsterdam’s Jewish community, Finkel plays a synagogue board member. “This character is completely new from what I’ve done,” Finkel told the Forward. “He’s got a classical touch about him.”
Finkel calls this character “challenging,” yet in some ways it’s hard to believe that any role is difficult for him at this point. The actor has been working onstage since he was 9. He is a Yiddish theater legend and has tackled such English-language stage roles as Tevye in the original Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof” and Mr. Mushnik in the long-running off-Broadway production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” And then there’s his television résumé, which includes an Emmy-winning supporting actor performance on “Picket Fences” and a major role on “Boston Public.” Finkel is so well established that for the past 20 years, he has not even auditioned. “I don’t audition, because I don’t like it,” he said. “When you own a store, you sell products, but when you audition, you are trying to sell yourself. If they turn you down, they turn you down. I will not have it. I tell the people: ‘Look, you’re not buying a house. Take a chance.’”
The practice has served Finkel well; he still receives numerous offers. After he learned that Walter Bobbie was directing “New Jerusalem,” Finkel accepted a role without even reading the script (Finkel and Bobbie appeared together on Broadway in “Cafe Crown”). And once Finkel studied Ives’s words, he did not regret his decision. He trusts that audience members will “remember this play for life,” calling it “funny and engrossing.” Finkel considers the show particularly important because it is based on a true story — that of a young man excommunicated because of his controversial writings. “Everyone has heard of Spinoza, but they don’t know what really happened to him,” the actor said.
Finkel will miss the “New Jerusalem” team — which includes Tony Award-winning actor Richard Easton — when the show’s final curtain comes down, but it will give him a chance to resume touring with his family (he and his sons recently performed at 16 Florida condominiums in the span of two weeks). Finkel’s wife helps with the scripts, his sons compose and play music, and he does his shtick, complete with song and dance.
Finkel is able to do all this and everything else because of his fans. “I love people,” he said. “I keep telling performers: ‘Not only do you owe them a good performance, you also owe them love. 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.’”
Cara Joy David is a freelance writer. She dedicates this story to her grandfather, who recently passed away. Like Fyvush Finkel, he truly loved people.