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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the March 3, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Theodore Bikel, Nearing 80, Promises ‘Lots More’
‘I am not a specialist, but a general practitioner in the world of the
arts," says renowned, lauded and multi-talented (almost) octogenarian
Theodore Bikel. The actor, who celebrates his 80th birthday in May, is
starring in the New Jersey premiere of "The Chosen," a play adapted
from the novel by Chaim Potok by the author and Aaron Posner.
In the role of Reb Saunders, Bikel is specializing in some sense. He
plays an autocratic and powerful Hassidic rabbi whose view is that a
Jewish homeland can be founded only through the coming of a messiah.
The specialization for Bikel, in this instance, is acting. His
strictly kosher role in "The Chosen" does not require him to sing any
of the international folk songs that he has recorded and performed
over the years, nor is he called on to play the guitar, his instrument
Potok’s novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967, focuses on the
friendship between two Jewish boys from dissimilar religious and
cultural backgrounds. Neither the modestly received film version,
released in 1981, nor a short-lived (eight Off-Broadway performances)
and very costly $2.5 million musical version in 1988 (also adapted by
the author), succeeded in capturing the richly detailed view of life
among American Hasidic Jews in 1944 Brooklyn that made the novel so
Now "The Chosen," a new drama that had its world premiere at
Philadelphia’s Arden Theater Company in 1999, is a collaboration of
Posner with the late Potok, who died last year. This most recent
attempt to capture the essence of the novel aims to give the insular
conflicts within American Judaism more universal appeal. Posner says
"The Chosen" has all the elements of great theater: "fathers and sons,
coming of age, friendship, passion, and disillusionment."
Bikel can proudly boast of having enjoyed a full life in the theater.
"There is still a lot to come," he assured me during our phone
conversation from his hotel suite in Miami, where "The Chosen" was
concluding its pre-Paper Mill Playhouse run at Miami’s Coconut Grove
Playhouse. Born in Vienna and raised in Israel (then Palestine), from
the age of 14, Bikel says that he can relate to his character Saunders
in some ways but not in others.
"Growing up with my father, a socialist and Zionist, I do not share
Reb Saunders belief that Israel should not be created (the time is the
mid-1940s) as a secular state," says Bikel. It was only after several
readings of the book by Potok (who was also a rabbi) that Bikel
understood how one could embrace orthodoxy and also step away from it.
In describing the challenge of the role, Bikel says that, "although I
don’t identify personally with Reb Saunders, I had to understand a man
whose mind was so closely closeted and circumscribed in terms of the
boundaries that he will not cross." Bikel admits to sharing his
character’s belief in a traditional life, adding, "But I prefer to
choose which traditions to keep and which to let go."
Bikel, who speaks fluent Hebrew, Yiddish, and German – as well as
having a respectable command of English and French – uses his
linguistic skill in this role by authenticating Reb Saunders, a
Lithuanian, with a Litvak-Yiddish accent.
"There are many ways in which the speech of Lithuanian Jews differs
from Polish and Russian Jews, and if you are in tune with the
differences you will hear it," he says, "just as other references in
the play will resonate with those that are familiar with them."
Among Bikel’s many films, one needs only to hear his Southern drawl
(Academy Award nomination for the Sheriff in "The Defiant Ones,"), his
Russian (submarine skipper in "The Russians are Coming, The Russians
Are Coming"), Hungarian ("My Fair Lady"), and German ("The African
Queen") to appreciate his consummate linguistic flair.
Asked whether he thinks of himself as an actor who can sing or as a
singer who can act, Bikel answers: "It depends if you ask me on a
Monday or a Tuesday." He acknowledges that it is the actor in him who
must tell a story, and the singer who must provide the rhythm and the
shape. "They feed off each other."
Would Bikel, if he had his life to do all over, make any changes?
"I’ve been very content with my life," says Bikel who, as a stage
struck 19-year-old, joined the internationally famous Habimah Theater
as an apprentice actor. Only one year later he co-founded the Israeli
Chamber Theater. In 1946, Bikel was accepted at London’s Royal Academy
of Dramatic Arts, where he would spend two years and begin to appear
in several small London theaters.
Speaking of his theater training, Bikel is blunt. "Habimah was rigid
in the Stanislavski Method and the Royal Academy was rigid in the
externals. I wanted to acknowledge other possibilities."
He got a big career boost from Sir Laurence Olivier, who cast him as
Mitch in his acclaimed London staging of "A Streetcar Named Desire"
with Vivian Leigh. Bikel remained with that production in London for a
year and a half before going on to tour for another year. Bikel
enjoyed an even longer run of two years in London playing opposite
playwright and actor Peter Ustinov in "The Love of Four Colonels."
His blossoming talent, that now included folk singing, was soon
visible in numerous London and New York plays and musicals, including
the original Broadway production of "The Sound of Music," where he
created the role of Baron von Trapp. Equally memorable are the popular
national tours of "Zorba" and "Fiddler on the Roof," in which Bikel
has played Tevye for more than 2000 performances since 1967.
But when I remind Bikel of "Pousse Cafe" (a musical version of "The
Blue Angel"), and "Cafe Crown" (a musical version of the play with the
same name), both of which closes after three performances, he says,
"You learn more from the flops than you do from the hits.
"I’m exceedingly proud of being an actor, but I never recommend it to
anyone." Is there still one role he hasn’t played but would like to?
"King Lear, but I’m not old enough," he answers, laughing for the
first time in our conversation. If I have one vanity wish, it would be
to direct. It’s the only thing I haven’t done yet that I would like to
Interestingly, Bikel is being directed by David Ellenstein, who might
well be just the right man to encourage Bikel to pursue "Lear." David
is proud to say that he saw his father, the noted film, stage and
television actor Robert Ellenstein, who recently turned 80, play
"Lear" just seven years ago for the Los Angeles Repertory Company.
Making his Paper Mill Playhouse debut, Ellenstein comes well prepared,
having previously directed productions of "The Chosen" at the Arizona
Jewish Theater and at the Los Angeles Repertory Company. Ellenstein
says it was the Los Angeles production that piqued Bikel’s interest in
the play and resulted in this co-production between the Coconut Grove
and Paper Mill Playhouse.
Speaking to me from his home in Carlsbad, California, where he lives
with his wife Denise and their 19-month-old son, Ellenstein says that
he was raised in a traditional Jewish life. Then he went into the
family business. He and his father have worked together at Portland
Rep, Alaska Rep, and at the Arizona Jewish Theater, where David served
for a short time as artistic director.
In a gathering worthy of the Barrymores, David’s brother, Peter
Ellenstein, who is artistic director of the William Inge Theater
Festival in Kansas, appeared with father and brother in a production
of "Broadway Bound," at the now defunct Gaslamp Theater. Their sister
Jan is an arts festival organizer in Chicago. In a fringe area of show
biz, grandfather Meyer C. Ellenstein was twice elected the mayor of
Newark from 1933 to 1941. He was Newark’s only Jewish mayor.
New York-born but a Los Angeles resident since 1958, Ellenstein
currently divides his time between his position as newly-appointed
artistic director of San Diego’s North Coast Repertory Company and
freelance projects. Among his many roles as an actor, he can boast of
playing "Hamlet" (yes, directed by his father) at the Los Angeles
Theater Center. He directed his father in Barbara Lebow’s
post-Holocaust play "A Shayna Maidel," and also directed Wendy
Wasserstein’s "The Heidi Chronicles."
I ask Ellenstein if he has made a mission of directing plays with
Jewish themes. "It hasn’t been by design," he replies.
Unlike the sprawling novel, this version of "The Chosen" has been
streamlined for just five characters. Although the play still embraces
a place both strange and familiar, it has been structured to focus
more specifically upon the conflicts and barriers that exist between
These include Saunders’ restless and searching son Danny (played by
John Lloyd Young) and the studious and gentle Reuven Malter (Richard
Topol), the son of a secular Jewish professor and Zionist activist.
Maplewood resident Mitchell Greenberg (who appeared in the Arden
Theater production of "The Chosen") plays David Malter, and Paul
Kropfl plays Young Reuven. The production team includes Michael Anania
(sets), Ellis Tillman (costumes), Michael J. Eddy (lighting), and
David R. Paterson and Steve Shapiro (sound). Since premiering at the
Arden Theater, "The Chosen" has played at numerous theaters throughout
the United States, but never before in New Jersey. Performances
continue at the Paper Mill Playhouse through Sunday, March 21.
– Simon Saltzman
The Chosen, Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn,
973-376-4343. To Sunday, March 21. $30 to $67.
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