Chaim Topol, Israeli actor known for Fiddler’s Tevye, has died

JERUSALEM — Chaim Topol, a leading Israeli actor who captivated generations of theatergoers and moviegoers with his portrayal of Tevye, the long-suffering and charismatic milkman in “Fiddler on the Roof,” has died in Tel Aviv, Israeli leaders said Thursday. It was 87.

The cause was not immediately disclosed.

Israeli leaders on Thursday tweeted their memories and condolences to Topol’s family.

Israel’s ceremonial president Isaac Herzog hailed Topol as “one of the most outstanding Israeli actors”, who “filled the cinema screens with his presence and above all entered deep into our hearts”.

Benny Gantz, Israel’s former defense minister, praised Topol for helping Israelis connect with their roots.

“We laughed and cried at the same time about the deepest wounds of Israeli society,” he wrote of Topol’s performance.

Yair Lapid, Israel’s opposition leader, said Topol taught Israelis “love for culture and love for the land.”

Topol’s charity, Jordan River Village, also announced his death, paying tribute to him as an “inspiration” whose “legacy will continue for generations to come”.

Recipient of two Golden Globe Awards and nominated for both an Academy Award and a Tony Award, Topol has long ranked among Israel’s most awarded actresses. Most recently, in 2015, he was honored for his contributions to cinema and culture with the Israel Lifetime Achievement Award, his country’s most prestigious honor. Until a few years ago, he was still involved in theater and said he was still fielding requests to play Tevye.

Topol began performing in a theater troupe in the Israeli army in the 1950s, where he met his future wife Galia. His first breakthrough was the lead role in the successful 1964 Israeli film Sallah Shabati, about the plight of Middle Eastern immigrants in Israel. The film made history as the first Israeli film to earn an Oscar nomination and also earned Topol his first Golden Globe Award.

Two years later, he made his English-language film debut alongside Kirk Douglas in Cast a Giant Shadow. But the role of his life came in the long-running musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” in which he played the lead dairyman, Tevye, a Jewish father trying to preserve his family’s cultural traditions despite the upheaval in their Russian states.

With his rich voice, folksy witticisms and commanding stage presence, Topol’s Tevye, driving his horse-drawn cart and delivering milk, butter and eggs to the rich, became a popular hero in Israel and around the world.

After years of playing Tevye on stage in London and on Broadway, he played the title role in the 1971 film version directed by Norman Jewison, winning a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor and being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. He lost to Gene Hackman in ‘The French Connection’.

Topol played the role more than 3,500 times on stage, most recently in 2009. With the help of heavy makeup and costumes, he first portrayed the much older, heavier milkman in his 30s and literally aged into the role.

Topol faced stiff competition to secure the role in Jewison’s hit film — dozens of talent have played Tevye in more than a dozen languages ​​since “Fiddler on the Roof” first appeared. Topol said his personal experience as a descendant of Russian Jews helped him relate to Tevye and deepen his performance.

In an interview with The Associated Press from his home in Tel Aviv in 2015, on the occasion of accepting Israel’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Topol traced his meteoric rise from humble beginnings to global fame.

“I didn’t grow up in Hollywood. I grew up in a kibbutz,” he said. “Sometimes I’m surprised when I come to China or when I come to Tokyo or when I come to France or when I come anywhere and the immigration official says ‘Topol, Topol, are you Topol?’

Topol also starred in more than 30 other films, including as the lead in “Galileo,” Dr. Hans Zarkoff in “Flash Gordon” and James Bond’s ally-turned-ally Milos Columbo in “For Your Eyes Only” alongside Roger Moore.

But he became synonymous with just one role – Tevye. Pouring his heart out to his impoverished Jewish community over the years, Topol has made audiences laugh and cry on Broadway and West End stages.

“How many people are known about a place? How many people in my profession are known worldwide?’ he told the AP. “I’m not complaining.”

However, Topol said that sometimes he needed to look outside of acting to find meaning in his life. He devoted much of his later years to philanthropy as chairman of the board of Jordan River Village, a camp serving Middle Eastern children with life-threatening illnesses.

“I’m interested in charities and find them more fulfilling than running from one (acting) part to another,” he said. “When you’re successful in a film and the money is flowing, yes, obviously, it’s very nice. But to tell you that’s the most important thing, I’m not sure.”

Topol is survived by his wife and three children.

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