Chaim Topol: Israeli star of stage and screen who made an iconic role his own

The actor’s performance as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof made him an international star in the early 1970s

Born September 9th, 1935; died March 8th, 2023

The sight of Tevye the milkman 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 hard-edged Mostel.


Topol returned to London in the role in 1983, and faced Broadway at last in 1990. When he played Tevye again at the London Palladium in 1994, he was still only 58. Ten years later, Topol and Fiddler went to Australia and New Zealand, and a farewell American tour soon followed. He played Tevye for the last time in Boston on November 15th 2009.

Topol brought a passion and warmth to his signature role, which he played on stage in more than 3,500 performances

Born in Tel Aviv, Topol was the son of parents who had fled Poland in the 1930s. 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.

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.

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, whom he married at the Mishmar David kibbutz in 1956.

When he played Iago, in 1975, he presented the tragic Moor, he said, as ‘a man of the desert, an Arab, blackened by the blazing sun’

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.

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”.

iHis later film career never eclipsed Fiddler, though he appeared as Milos Columbo, a roguish Greek turncoat, in For Your Eyes Only (1981), opposite Roger Moore’s James Bond.

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). He illustrated 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. – Guardian