a talk with topol

by erin thursby
My first burning question to the legendary Chaim Topol was about facial hair. Specifically, I wanted to know if he always grew a real beard for the part of Tevye. Apparently, he does. Like many actors he’s adept at growing, shaving and changing his hair to suit whatever role he’s playing. Not everything on the stage is guaranteed to be real, but his beard always is. That’s good because I feel the same way about Tevye that I do about Santa Claus. It’s always so much better if the beard is real.
Topol is the actor most associated with the role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. At the tender age of 30 he played Tevye, a man perhaps twice his age. He was asked to come to the audition in London because the director had seen him play an old Jewish man in Sallah Shebati, a critically acclaimed film. When he showed up for the audition, says Topol, “They were very surprised to see a guy 29 or 30.” Even so, he wowed them in auditions and they knew from his movie appearance that he could play a convincing older man.
“From the day I started to act on stage for some reason I was attracted to play older people. It didn’t seem acting enough to be my own age.”
Since then he’s played the part in the movie and a number of revivals, winning a number of awards, including the 1971 Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy. Unlike those first performances as a guy barely out of his twenties, today Topol’s had some of the life experiences Tevye has. He knows what it is to be married 25 years and he knows what it means to give a daughter away to a new husband.
“When your daughter comes and says ‘I love him’ and you know nothing about him…you are terrified.” His own daughter played two of Tevye’s daughters during the ’90s, which added still another dimension to the role.
Even after playing the part for all these years he still finds something new in it, mainly because the actors around him change with every production.
“Every partner I have a scene with on stage brings something different.” And Topol reacts to those differences as Tevye. He says that the difference in his relationship with other characters gives the chance to refresh his relationship with Tevye and the character he’s playing opposite of at the time.
If you’ve seen the ads for Fiddler on the Roof, you might have noticed that they indicate Topol is retiring from the role of Tevye. It turns out that’s a bit of a marketing ploy. When I asked Topol if he was really never going to play the role again, he said “I can’t promise it.” The ads announcing his retirement from Tevye, he says, “have nothing to do with me.”
Such a gimmick is not beyond the pale. How many farewell tours did Cher have? They probably thought, because of his age, that Topol is unlikely to play the part again before he dies. But at 73, Topol is still going strong. He’s spry enough that he’s set to play Zorba the Greek in 2010. While he’s best known for the role of Tevye, his career has spanned far more than that. From the Royal Shakespeare Company, to most recently, Uncle Honore in Gigi.
Even so, musical lovers should not miss this chance. It’s hard to know if he’s ever going to a U.S. national tour of Fiddler like this again. He’s a busy man and the next time he plays Tevye might not be anywhere remotely near Jacksonville.
He’s always been gentle with the humor in the first part of the play, rather than milking the laughs. He believes in the old saying: ‘If you laugh too much in the first act, you won’t cry in the second.’
While he enjoys playing the fun, boisterous scenes, it’s the scenes where he says goodbye to his on-stage daughters that mean the most to him.
“These are the scenes that break my heart, but I cherish them…The loud silence in the audience sometimes is more rewarding than the big laugh. Because they’re really with you.”
As our interview was drawing to a close, there was something that Topol wanted to talk about beyond the world of acting and musicals. The most important thing in his life right now is the Jordan River Village, which provides a special place for terminally or seriously ill children. Jordan River Village is place where these kids can be kids, have a little vacation and time outdoors, all with their medical needs met. It’s associated with Hole in the Wall Camps, the brainchild of the late Paul Newman. Topol has spent the last six years getting together a medical staff and building the camp. He’s even sung songs from Fiddler at a benefit concert for the camp.