Chaim Topol obituary

The sight of Tevye the milkman shaking his upper torso and stomping out his yearning, melodic, future subjunctive – “If I were a rich man, yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum / All day long I’d biddy biddy bum / If I were a wealthy man … ” – is one of the most indelible in all stage and film history. It is for ever associated with the irrepressible Israeli actor Chaim Topol, who has died aged 87. He played Tevye in the 1967 London premiere of Fiddler on the Roof and in the 1971 Norman Jewison film version. Topol won a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination in the role, attending the Oscar ceremony on leave from the Israeli army.

The musical had been premiered on Broadway in 1964, with Zero Mostel as Tevye. The book of Fiddler was adapted by Joseph Stein from the stories of Sholem Aleichem, the insinuating songs written by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock. A fount of Yiddish philosophy (“If you spit in the air, it lands in your face”), Tevye spoke directly to God in the Ukrainian village of Anatevka in 1905 – where, said the theatre critic Milton Shulman, the chief manufacturing goods were schmaltz and lumps in the throat – and came to represent the resilience of the Jewish people down the ages.

Topol (his name means “tree of life”), with his rich bass voice and instant rapport with the audience, was the icing on the strudel. He always deferred to Mostel’s genius as Tevye, and was surprised to be cast in the film. But he brought a passion and warmth to his signature role – which he played on stage in more than 3,500 performances, he estimated – that had possibly eluded the more clownish and hard-edged Mostel.

Topol returned to London in the role in 1983, and toured extensively in the US in the late 1980s, when Rosalind Harris, who played the eldest of his five daughters in the film, played his wife. He faced Broadway at last in 1990. When he played Tevye again at the London Palladium in 1994, he was still only 58. By then, the production and performance – enshrined by contract in Boris Aronson’s Chagall-inspired designs and Jerome Robbins’s brilliant but increasingly overfamiliar choreography – showed signs of creakiness. But Irving Wardle once again hailed Topol’s Tevye as “a living memorial to the comic genius of a tragic people”.

This version toured in Europe, Japan and Australia. Ten years later, Topol and Fiddler returned to Australia, as well as New Zealand, and a farewell American tour soon followed. He played Tevye for the last time in Boston, Massachusetts, on 15 November 2009.

His background had validated the performance. Born in Tel Aviv, Topol was the son of parents who had fled Poland in the 1930s – Jacob, a plasterer who had fought in the Haganah against the British in the war of independence, and Rel (nee Goldman), a seamstress. Like many Israelis of his generation, Topol served in the army in the Sinai campaign, in the six-day war in 1967 (he left the cast of Fiddler at Her Majesty’s theatre, London, for that campaign) and in the Yom Kippur war of 1973.

In the army, Topol, who had two younger sisters, joined an entertainment troupe and then started his own satirical revue company, Batzal Yarok (“The Spring Onion” – “To convey the idea of something fresh, sharp and spicy,” he said). One of his fellow comedians was Galia Finkelstein, who shared his background in the Labour movement and whom he married at the Mishmar David kibbutz in 1956.

Topol first played Tevye in London in 1967 and reprised it on the West End in 1983. Photograph: David Thorpe/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock

Prior to his army service Topol had trained and worked as a printer after leaving school aged 14. He had never considered becoming a professional actor until, after a spell with the Cameri theatre in Tel Aviv, he joined the new Haifa municipal theatre in 1961. His leading roles there included Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, Azdak in Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Jean in Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, which the playwright hailed as the best production ever of his absurdist, surreal play.

He was already well known for the character of Sallah Shabati, an immigrant weighed down with troubles and children who somehow overcomes all adversity. This dry run for Tevye featured in his army revues and a 1964 film (his third) that broke all box-office records in Israel and was nominated for a best foreign-language film Oscar.

International stardom followed in Melville Shavelson’s Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), a war drama about Israel’s struggle for independence, with Kirk Douglas as the American-born colonel David “Mickey” Marcus. Topol played an Arab sheikh, and underlined his versatility by playing a Russian deserter posing as a Slav interpreter in J Lee Thompson’s Before Winter Comes (1969), alongside David Niven, John Hurt and Anthony Quayle.

Still, when he came to London for Fiddler, he spoke hardly a word of English, and was tutored by the Royal Shakespeare Company voice coach Cicely Berry. He later embarked on a happy association with the Chichester Festival theatre, where he played Azdak again (completely bald) in 1969; the Peter Ustinov role of a match-making general in R Loves J, a musical version of Ustinov’s Romanoff and Juliet, with songs by Julian More and Alexander Faris, in 1973; and Othello, with Keith Michell as Iago, in 1975, presenting the tragic Moor, he said, as “a man of the desert, an Arab, blackened by the blazing sun”.

An attempt to follow the success of Fiddler with another musical scripted by Stein, this time with songs by Stephen Schwartz, The Baker’s Wife, foundered on the road and never reached Broadway. And his later film career never eclipsed Fiddler, though he appeared as Brecht’s Galileo in Joseph Losey’s 1974 memorial record of Charles Laughton’s version for the American Film theatre; as the scientist Dr Zarkov in Flash Gordon (1980); and as Milos Columbo, a roguish Greek turncoat, in For Your Eyes Only (1981), opposite Roger Moore’s James Bond.

Roger Moore and Topol in the 1981 Bond film For Your Eyes Only. Photograph: Cinetext Collection/Sportsphoto/Allstar

His television work included an incomplete project to film all the books of the Bible; The House on Garibaldi Street (1979), about the capture of Adolf Eichmann, with Martin Balsam and Janet Suzman; and the 1983 mini-series The Winds of War, and its sequel, War and Remembrance, in 1987.

Topol’s last appearance in London was in the autumn of 2008, when he played the Maurice Chevalier role of the old roue Honoré in a delightful revival of Gigi by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe in the Open Air theatre at Regent’s Park. As of old, he held the audience in the palm of his hand and discharged his two big numbers – Thank Heavens for Little Girls and I Remember It Well – with a laconic, sideways-on delivery and a generous dose of his trademark confidential charm.

His vivid autobiography, Topol By Topol, was published in 1981, and he compiled a treasury of Jewish jokes and wisdom, To Life! (1994), illustrating both books with his own deft line drawings.

Although he kept a house in London and travelled widely, Topol spent half the year at home in Tel Aviv. He helped to found the Jordan River Village, a holiday camp in lower Galilee for chronically ill children of all ethnic and religious backgrounds, which opened in 2012.

Galia and their children, Omer, Adi and Anat, survive him.