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When the Legendary Theodore Bikel Turned 90

Broadway star, Academy Award-nominated and Emmy-winning film and TV actor, folk singer, recording artist, radio host, raconteur, advocate for the arts, international human rights activist — Theodore Bikel has been all of these things and more over the course of his long and intensely rich career, and he’s still going relatively strong at the age of 90.

“My days are somewhat different than they were at 80 or 70,” says Bikel from his home in Los Angeles, which he shares with Aimee Ginsburg, his fourth wife, whom he married last year. “I do what I used to do, but I do it more slowly and selectively in terms of public appearances. Travel used to be somewhat of a pleasure, and for nobody these days is it a pleasure anymore — especially for a very old geezer like myself.”

Though he no longer treads the boards in his best-known stage role, Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” which he played for over two thousand performances, Bikel still performs on occasion. Most recently, at a 90th birthday celebration at the Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, D.C., he serenaded a crowd that included Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Bikel remains active in other arenas, as well. “Theodore Bikel in the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem,” a documentary that he produced and stars in, premiered this summer at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and he’s recently released an updated edition of “Theo: An Autobiography,” which was first published in 1994.

Twenty years on from its original publication, “Theo: An Autobiography” remains a rollicking and fascinating read; it’s hard to think of another book that contains firsthand recollections of both the Anschluss — born in Vienna, Bikel emigrated from Austria to Palestine with his parents in 1938 — and Bob Dylan’s controversial “electric” set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Amusing anecdotes abound regarding such career highlights as the original stage production of “The Sound of Music” and his roles in “The African Queen,” “The Defiant Ones,” and “My Fair Lady,” but the book also contains considerable soul-searching relating to Bikel’s changing relationship with Israel, his own feelings of statelessness, and his sense of guilt overhaving been able to escape the Holocaust while so many others perished at the hands of the Nazis.

In his new postscript to the book, Bikel also admits to having the nagging sense that, for all of his considerable accomplishments, his success was “a little too easy.” “I have a facile mind, and I don’t have to work hard and sweat overly much,” he explained as he spoke to the Forward’s Dan Epstein. “I sweat some, but not overly much. And, you know, that’s both a good thing and a bad thing. Looking back, you say to yourself, ‘If I had to dig harder, maybe I would have come up with more gold!’”

Dan Epstein: One of the interesting themes that runs through your book is the clash of purism versus popular culture — that even though you were a devoted student of folk music traditions, your own music was derided by purists.

Theodore Bikel: Yes! “What is this Broadway star, this Hollywood-type person, doing pretending to be a folksinger?” That’s the subtext of that accusation. And I had to tell them, “Look, I love folk music, and I love performing it, and I’m very faithful, as faithful as I can be, to the origins of what I’m doing. Don’t hold it against me that I’m also successful in other areas!” But if they want to hold it against me, let them.

Do you think people get overly hung up on the concept of purism?

Not necessarily, but it gets in the way of the joy of performing. A purist may be a wonderful and knowledgeable person in the field, but he is, in the end, an academic. He embraces everything, because everything that needs to be known needs to be known by him or her. Those of us who are less than purists can pick and choose. We can sing what we like; we don’t have to sing what we don’t particularly like. Only those people who insist on a full anthology of music, for example, will say that we have to sing all the ballads that exist — all the love songs, all the protest songs. No, we don’t! We sing the ones that speak to us. And if they don’t speak to us, we can’t make them speak to you, the audience.

The success of your folk recordings for Elektra Records helped get that fledgling label off the ground, and enabled it to make a major mark in the folk world and beyond. Were you a fan of any of the rock bands that were on Elektra in the late 1960s, like The Doors?

Some of it, some of it; not all of it. I’m an old fuddy-duddy; I stick with what I like, and what I liked [back then] I still like. If a new thing comes along, I listen to it with a sort of strangely cocked ear. Some of it can be very good; but most of it is, to my taste, too loud, and too insistent on beat and less on content. I need to hear the text, I need to hear the story in what the singer wants to tell me.

It’s interesting to read your perspective on Bob Dylan’s “electric” performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Your reaction to it was more measured than, say, Pete Seeger’s was, but you were still clearly upset by the incident.

Yeah, I was upset. But I also knew that this music had somewhere to go — it just wasn’t right for Newport, and for the folk festival that we were running. I also didn’t like the idea that Bob Dylan, who was idealized by so many of the people in the audience, would be booed offstage. Nobody likes to hear that sound! I mean, when he came offstage, he was white in the face and trembling. And I said to him, “Bobby, if a person rides on a horse and gets thrown from the horse, unless he gets back on the horse he’ll never ride again. So I suggest you get out there with an acoustic guitar, and give them the Bob Dylan they came to hear.” And he did that. Of course, he was in the mode of a declaration of independence; what he sang with the electronic band was, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” which is a declaration of independence. And then, when he went out there with his acoustic guitar, he sang, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” which is just as much of a declaration of independence.

You also write about the contrasting ways that Dylan and Phil Ochs dealt with their political disillusionment.

Phil Ochs’ disillusionment drove him to death, to suicide. Bob Dylan might have gone on the same path, except that he turned away from it and turned inward. And it saved him — maybe even saved his sanity, for all I know.

On the other hand, you don’t seem to have ever become disillusioned.

No, I haven’t, because I am a person of hope. Even in the midst of despair, I’m a person of hope.

To what do you attribute that?

Possibly to the fact that I was miraculously saved from being swallowed up by the Holocaust. We managed to escape, my father, my mother and I, by a set of circumstances that were due to the fact that my father had been a lifelong Zionist. We managed to get a legal permit to enter Palestine, which was under British rule at the time. But it was a narrow escape! And every now and again, I ask myself the question, “Why was I saved?” And the answer has to be that I can use my voice in the place of the voices that were stilled. And there is a lot of hope in that.

Do you think your passion for social justice stemmed from that experience? Or do you think it would have blossomed under any circumstances?

No, it stems from that, and the fact that my father was a socialist, and I grew up in a socialist household. I always feel that victims of discrimination and persecution are those on whose side I have to be, no matter who they are, what they are, what skin color they have, or what religion they profess. I witnessed people who did not participate in the atrocities of the Nazis — but they did not open their doors and windows either to call a halt, either. And to this day, I cannot absolve these nice people of their guilt and complicity; I was too young at the time to formulate that, but later I swore that I would never put myself in the place of these nice, decent gentiles who thought that it wasn’t their fight. I look at injustice, and I know it’s always my fight.

Have your feelings about Israel changed at all since the day in 1938 when you first landed in Tel Aviv?

Oh, quite. They have changed — not regarding Israel as a concept or Israel the dream, but Israel as a reality has given me a lot of heartache. Because what used to be a country that was so open and so free, and so based on a socialist ideology and the kibbutz mentality, has changed into a consumerist imitation of America at its worst. The Israel of today is a place where children go to bed hungry, and it’s gut-wrenching for me.

What is a typical day like for you in your 90th year?

Things are slower, but there are great compensations. I am, lo and behold and most surprisingly, a newlywed! I have been married to this wonderful woman for the past year, and it is a lifesaver. We spend a lot of time together — in fact, we spend all of our time together. And people come to my house and I go to their houses. Los Angeles is a society that is not kind of free, where your doors are open and people come in and out; you have to make appointments way ahead of time. [Laughs] But I go see plays, I go see movies, I vote on the Oscars… I am engaged with life!

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