Over the past few years, we've grown accustomed to seeing Israeli faces on the big screen. But before actresses such as Gal Gadot and Natalie Portman captured our hearts, one man blazed a trail for Israeli performers world wide – Chaim Topol.
While he may not be a household name in the West, Chaim Topol paved the way for a generation of Israeli performers to come. The Golden Globe winner has enjoyed a storied career, appearing in works as mainstream as For Your Eyes Only, where he played wingman to Roger Moore's 007, to the campy pulp fringes of Flash Gordon, but these are not the roles he'll be remembered for. No, it is his iconic portrayal of Tevye the milkman in Fiddler on the Roof that has immortalized Topol in the ranks of Israeli performers.
Topol began his acting career in an unlikely place - the Israeli army. Joining the IDF at the age of 18, Topol gained recognition for his quick thinking and attentive mind. But along with being commander of his own unit, he also served in the Nahal entertainment troupe. When he wasn't drilling or patrolling, Topol was cutting his performance teeth by entertaining his fellow troops and servicemen. While serving, Topol would hone his stage persona, learning how to read a room, improvise on the fly, and convey emotion effectively from a distance. As a member of the entertainment troupe, Topol didn't always have easy access to scripts or materials to work with, so he learned to make his own. He quickly became proficient as a sketch comedian, envisioning, writing, and performing short scenes with relatively little time for revisions and second guessing. These sketches and small scripts had a kind of authentic "from the gut” feel given their origin, one which resonated with audiences (one of the scripts he wrote while on active duty would later be revived to become the Oscar-nominated film Sallah Shabati). Topol eventually completed his service and left the IDF, but the passion for performance he developed during his time in the army never left him.
Away from the service and looking to strike out on his own as a young man, Topol and a group of friends founded a satirical theater group called the Spring Onion. The vision for the group was for a completely local and home grown take on the theater. He wanted a group that would express what the common men and women of Israel contended with on a daily basis. As such, all the talent for Spring Onion was locally sourced, anyone who wanted to be in the theater had to be a member of his Mishmar David Kibbutz. This was just an early example of Topol's commitment to his roots and people.
Unfortunately, the troupe encountered tragedy with the death of one of its founding members (a personal friend of Topol's) and was disbanded. In the wake of this upset, Topol founded the Haifa Municipal Theater alongside his friend Josef Milo in 1960. Here he would refine his stage persona in multiple roles, including Jean in Enesco's Rhinoceros, and Azdax in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, garnering notoriety and stoking the beginning flickers of fame. The Haifa Municipal Theater endures to this day, a fixture of the community.
In 1961, Topol made his first screen appearance as a supporting character in the mostly forgettable I Like Mike, an Israeli drama/comedy. While it may have been a humble cinematic debut, it didn't take long for him to find bigger and better things including more roles and even US exposure in the years to come. His script for Sallah Shabbati was adapted to a screenplay, with Topol cast as the eponymous lead. The film put him on the map with a Golden Globe and a Golden Bridge Award for Best Actor in the San Francisco Film Festival.
It was in 1966 that Topol made the transition from an actor on the upswing to a legendary performer. This was the year he first adopted the role of Tevye the milkman in an Israeli stage production of Fiddler on the Roof. His performance was instantly hailed as a masterpiece, bringing a humanity and charm to the character all of his own. A massive success at home in Israel, Fiddler also found international success as well, performing at Her Majesty's Theater in London.
It was in London where Norman Jewison saw Topol on stage and knew right then and there that an English speaking film adaptation of Fiddler needed to exist. This is the version of Fiddler most people in North America know, and Topol serves as the very face and heart of the film. At the time, the 34 year old Topol sat in the make-up chair for more than two hours each day of the shoot to transform into the aged and weary Tevye.
Since then, Topol has played the role more than 3,500 times all across the world. From film to Broadway, to Israel and Australia, to London and Japan, he has brought his iconic portrayal to stages big and small. Now 82 years old, it wouldn't take as much make-up to slip back into the role. Despite his age though,Topol still loves to entertain.
As impressive as his legacy as Tevye is, it is only one of Topol's many contributions to Israeli culture. He's served as a producer on dozens of films, played in numerous series in Israel and beyond, and still appears in other stage shows.
But all of these accomplishments pale next to his charitable works. Since 1967 (just before he became the juggernaut of Israel's entertainment world we know today), he founded Variety Israel, an organization that is dedicated to serving children with special needs. The organization offers assistance and specialized care to families with children with disabilities or developmental challenges, helping children to reach their full potential as healthy and happy individuals while also providing support for their parents. He also founded and acts as chairman for the Jordan River Village, a holiday village for both Jewish and Arab children suffering from life-threatening diseases.
"We treat Muslim, Christian, Arab, Jewish, Sikh and Palestinian children together, just as we do in our hospitals. This is what we do in Israel.”
In recognition of his impact on Israeli culture, the role he has played in popularizing Fiddler and the Israeli experience to people around the globe, and his remarkable charity work, Topol was awarded the Israel Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015. In typical fashion, he insisted "Other people deserve it more.” That's statement that is hard to believe.