Topol, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ star, dead at 87 — rest in peace

Topol, the Israeli actor who achieved international fame playing Tevye in the classic musical Fiddler on the Roof, has died at 87.

The news was confirmed in a statement from Israel president Isaac Herzog, who called Topol a “gifted actor who conquered many stages in Israel and overseas, filled the cinema screens with his presence and especially entered deep into our hearts,” per The Guardian.

Kino. Anatevka, (FIDDLER ON THE ROOF) USA, 1971, Regie: Norman Jewison, CHAIM TOPOL Stichwort: Bart. (Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)

His son Omer revealed last year that Topol was suffering from Alzheimer’s, and yesterday the family said the actor was “living his final hours.”

Chaim Topol, who went professionally by his last name, was born September 9, 1935 in Tel Aviv. He began his acting career while serving in the Israeli army. His breakout role was in the 1964 Israeli film Sallah Shabati, for which he won a Golden Globe award for Most Promising Newcomer – Male.

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

But it was his performance as Tevye in the classic musical Fiddler on the Roof that would define his career. While Topol did not originate the role — Zero Mostel first played the role on Broadway — he is the actor most strongly identified with the character.

Topol first played Tevye, a poor milkman and father of five daughters, in 1966 in the Israeli production. He was then asked to audition for the original West End production in London, and though he was not yet fluent in English, he got the part.

According to the book Tradition!, he received rave reviews for his performance: “A bearded man in patched pants becomes king of London’s musical stage, a star overnight,” the review from News of the World read.

When Norman Jewison cast his 1971 film adaptation of the show, he chose the relative unknown for the leading role over Zero Mostel. “Chaim Topol breathed life into Tevye,” Newison said.

In the film, Topol immortalized some of musical theatre’s most iconic songs, including “Tradition,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “To Life” and “If I Were a Rich Man.”

The film was the highest-grossing film of the year and was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor in a Leading Role for Topol. He also won a Golden Globe for his performance.

Hollywood films followed, including the 1980 film Flash Gordon and the 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only.

But he had the most success returning to the role that made him famous. For decades, Topol continued to appear in stage productions of Fiddler on the Roof around the world. He led the 1991 Broadway revival, receiving a Tony nomination for his performance.

Topol was only 30 years old when he first starred in Fiddler, much younger than his character was supposed to be, but by the end he was even older than Tevye. He played the part from 1960 to 2009, with an estimated 3,500 performances.

Topol embraced his association with the character and the worldwide fame it brought him over the decades.

“How many people are known for one part? How many people in my profession are known worldwide? So I am not complaining,” he told Times of Israel in a 2015 interview. “Sometimes I am surprised when I come to China or when I come to Tokyo or when I come to France or when I come wherever and the clerk at the immigration says ‘Topol, Topol, are you Topol?’ So yes, many people saw [Fiddler], and it is not a bad thing.”

In addition to acting, Topol also had success as an illustrator, and was also known for his philanthropic work in Israel: he founded an organization serving children with special needs, and was co-founder and chairman of Jordan River Village, a camp for Arab and Jewish children with life-threatening illnesses.

Fiddler helped make Topol one of the best-known Israeli actors and he received many honors in his home country, including the Israel prize in 2015.

Fiddler on the Roof is one of the best musical movies of all time, and it’s thanks to Topol’s incredible performance as Tevye. The actor delighted people around the world both on the screen and on the stage.

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