Born 1924 in Vienna, Theodore Bikel was thirteen when he and his parents left Austria for Palestine. Fluent in Hebrew, Yiddish, and German with a respectable command of English and French, he intended to study and eventually teach comparative linguistics. But the pull of the theatre was stronger and he joined the internationally famous Habimah Theatre in 1943 as an apprentice actor. A year later he became one of the co-founders of the Israeli Chamber Theatre (the “Cameri”).In 1946 Bikel entered London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art from which he graduated with honors two years later. It was also at this time that he began to develop a serious interest in the guitar and folk music.
But he was first to make his mark as an actor. Sir Laurence Olivier was so impressed with Bikel’s performance in several small London theatre productions that he offered him a role in his production of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Vivien Leigh. Bikel soon took over the second male lead, Mitch, in the play.
From Streetcar on, Theodore Bikel’s career has been illuminated by superior stage and screen portrayals. In London he won acclaim playing the Russian Colonel in Ustinov’s The Love Of Four Colonels and on Broadway his roster of memorable performances includes Tonight In Samarkand, The Rope Dancers, The Lark and the original Broadway production of The Sound Of Music in which he created the role of Baron von Trapp. Nationally he starred in a number of other plays, including tours of Zorba and Fiddler on the Roof. After having played the role of Tevye over 2,000 times since 1967 Bikel's Tevye continues to garner the highest praise from audiences and critics nation-wide whenever he repeats the role.
Theodore Bikel was co-creator, co-author and co-star of a new show entitled Sholom Aleichem Lives, performed in early 1997 in various Florida theatres.
Among Bikel’s most well-known screen roles are the Southern Sheriff in The Defiant Ones (1958) (for which he received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor), The African Queen (1951), The Little Kidnappers (1953), My Fair Lady (1964), The Blue Angel (1959), The Enemy Below (1957), The Little Ark (1970), The Dog of Flanders (1958), I Want to Live (1958), The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1965), See You in the Morning (1989), Shattered (1991), Crisis in the Kremlin (1992), Benefit of the Doubt (1992), and Shadow Conspiracy (1996).
In these and numerous other roles Bikel’s flexibility of characterization is amply demonstrated: A Chinese crook, a Scottish police officer, an American university dean, A Russian submarine skipper, a Czech MVD officer, a Jewish refugee, a Greek peanut vendor, a Hindu doctor, an Austrian nobleman and a Hungarian linguist, among others.
Mr. Bikel has also appeared in opera productions: La Gazza Ladra, Philadelphia Opera Company (1989); The Abduction from the Seraglio, Cleveland Opera Company (1992), Ariadne auf Naxos, Los Angeles Opera Company (1992), and Die Fledermaus, Yale Opera Company (1998).
Bikel, who has starred in virtually every top dramatic show on television in the United States as well as in Canada and England, has repeatedly been nominated for “Emmy” awards and received an Emmy in 1988 for his portrayal of Harris Newmark, one of the early immigrant pioneers of the West Coast.
As an author and raconteur, Bikel wrote and starred in NBC-TV’s The Eternal Light, for CBS-TV’s Look Up And Live and ABC-TV’s Directions. His 90 -minute television special One Night Stand and his weekly radio program At Home With Theodore Bikel enjoyed national syndication. The author of Folksongs And Footnotes (published in the Sixties and about to be re-issued), Bikel is a frequent contributor to various journals and publications. His autobiography entitled “Theo” was re-released in 2002 by University of Wisconsin Press.
Theodore Bikel is the author and star of a new play with music entitled SHOLOM ALEICHEM; LAUGHTER THROUGH TEARS; its world premiere in Washington, DC, is scheduled for mid-December 2008.
An American citizen since 1961, Theodore Bikel lives in California. He is divorced and has two sons, Robert and Daniel, who live in Los Angeles and Westchester, NY, respectively. He has one grandson, Wolfram, born May 2007.
One of the world's best-known folk singers and a founder in 1961 of the Newport Folk Festival, the multi-faceted entertainer maintains an active concert schedule throughout the United States and abroad, with some 50 to 60 concerts per year, performing alone or with large symphony orchestras. He has recorded 16 albums for Elektra Records, an album of contemporary songs for Reprise Records entitled A New Day, in addition to cast albums of The Sound of Music and The King and I as well as a children’s album For the Young and Silent No More, an album of Soviet Jewish freedom songs smuggled out of the USSR. In addition, he has participated with various groups in recorded projects such as The Fifth Cup, The Passover Story and The Chanukkah Story.
Theodore Bikel has made many audio recordings of books-on-tape both contemporary and classics, among them the two latest Herman Wouk novels The Hope and The Glory, as well as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. He has also recorded the Tevye stories of Sholom Aleichem, all of the above for Audio Renaissance as well as Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s “O Jerusalem.”
Active for many years in the civil rights movement, Bikel was also an elected delegate to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. He formerly held the position of Senior Vice President of the American Jewish Congress, he served as President of the Actors' Equity Association (1973-82), as a Vice President of the International Federation of Actors (FIA), (1981-1991), as a Board Member of Amnesty International (USA), and, by Presidential appointment, as a member of the National Council on the Arts (1977-82). He is currently the President of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America (4A's).
In addition to the many honors and awards he has received over the years, Theodore Bikel was awarded honorary degrees of Doctor of Fine Arts from the University of Hartford in 1992, Doctor of Humane Letters from Seton Hall University in 2001 and Doctor of Humane Letters from Hebrew Union College in 2005. On July 4, 2006 in Moscow, Russia, The World Union for Progressive Judaism conferred upon Theo the title of MAGGID.
Theodore Bikel is a Renaissance Man, a concerned human being who works in the arts. He views his work and his life in terms of survival. “I am engaged in an anti-Phoenix crusade. Many people these days insist that their birth was like the birth of the Phoenix; suddenly one day they sprang out in middle of the desert, without memory or parentage.” Bikel maintains that is quite impossible. “You must explore your roots in the past in order to pinpoint your place in the present or to be entitled to a future. It doesn’t work any other way.”
To define versatility is to capture the essence of Theodore Bikel. For, in his own words, he is not a “specialist but a general practitioner in the world of the arts.” This is reflected in his multiplicity of talents: Bikel the actor on stage, screen and television; Bikel the folksinger and guitarist; Bikel the author, lecturer and raconteur; and Bikel the activist and arts advocate.