Chaim Topol’s Tevye in the 1971 movie adaptation of “Fiddler on the Roof” is perhaps the most iconic Jewish father role of all time: The milkman in the Russian town of Anatevka harps about “Tradition” as he watches his three daughters stray away from it.
Topol, who passed away this Wednesday at age 87 after a battle with Alzheimer’s, also broke from the tradition of his Jewish father — a plasterer, whom he fondly recalls as smelling of clean drywall — to become one of the most successful actors to come out of Israel.
Topol’s first claim to fame was the 1964 Israeli comedy “Sallah Shabati,” for which he won a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer — Male. While the film is now controversial for its portrayal of Mizrahi immigration, it remains, in the eyes of many, a classic.
Topol, who then went by just his surname for fear of having his first name butchered, beat out Broadway “Fiddler” Zero Mostel for the role of Tevye in the 1971 film. At the time, he played Tevye in the West End production of the show (Topol had to learn English for the role — taking lessons for eight hours a day). When the film’s crew first met him, they were surprised to see how young he was: Though already a father of three, he was in his early 30s — nothing like the old man he played in “Sallah.”
His iconic performance, his youthful smile, his fourth wall-breaking charm and his wonderful singing earned him another Golden Globe — and an Oscar nomination (he’s still the only Israeli ever nominated in the Best Actor category). It launched an international career for the actor, who went on to star in James Bond films opposite Roger Moore (with whom he became friends) and in the 1975 “Galileo,” to name but a few.
He also took on many Jewish roles. In “Flash Gordon,” he played the Jewish Hans Zarkov; in the “The House on Garibaldi Street,” he played the head of the team in charge of capturing Adolf Eichmann. Two projects, “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance” based on the Herman Wouk novels, took Topol to Auschwitz, where the son of Russian Jews had constant nightmares — he said the projects deeply affected his mental health.
Yet Tevye remained his most iconic role. His performance went on to inspire a generation of young actors: Mandy Patinkin played Tevye in a 1972 Kansas University production of the play, and Sacha Baron Cohen’s first acting role was Tevye in University of Cambridge production.
And new generations of children are still falling in love with the actor still. The three-hour movie was on Netflix for a long time and is currently available to stream for free on Freevee. Topol, who won a 2015 Israel Award for his work, is kind of our collective shtetl Jewish dad.
And he was happy to be a one hit wonder. He said he once told Marlon Brando, who was lamenting the fact that he wasn’t getting cast for the roles that he wanted, that “a man needs one movie in his pouch that’s a complete classic,” asking him, “What do you need more than one hit that becomes history?”
In real life, Topol was a devoted family man. He served in the IDF’s famous Nahal Band, but the musical education and experience he got there paled, in his eyes, in comparison to the biggest event of that period in his life — meeting his wife, Galia. The moment he saw her, he couldn’t take his eyes away: “The orchestra in me played a crescendo,” he recalled. Four days later, she was his girlfriend. In an interview with Chanel 12, he very effusively professed that his career would have never become what it did without her help and support, saying that after over 60 years of marriage, the two still just have fun together.
Topol and his wife had three children — daughters Anat and Adi and son Omer. Both Anat and Adi followed in their father’s footsteps and took on acting, though Anat turned to a career in anthropology later in life. Omer worked as a TV director before turning to a career in alternative medicine. Adi, who lived in a floor below Topol in a building built by Gila’s father, even played Chava in the 1994 West End Fiddler revival opposite her father. Her father would often help her with preschool pickup.
In a 2002 interview, Adi discusses how she chose to prioritize parenthood over her career as an actor, saying that she and her father “talked about it a lot. I heard from him how much you need to put into this profession, but he also agrees with my approach: I don’t want to be like those actors whose career is thriving, but don’t notice how their kids grow up.” She also said that her father told her that in acting, “everything is 95% luck and five percent talent.”
Topol and Galia did their best to raise their kids with a routine. Whenever Topol had a project that took him far from home for more than a week or two, they would pack up the kids and move them along with them, where they would try to implement a routine of homeschooling. In one interview, though, Omer said that his childhood was filled with people stopping his father on the street and recognizing him — and that he was always nice and gracious about it (Topol then told the interviewer that he learned that grace from his own son.)
Their family also had a “family whistle” they all whistled together from his days in the Nahal.
Topol was grandfather to nine grandkids — three from each one of his kids. In 2012, he revealed that he accompanied his grandchildren to nightclubs in Tel Aviv. “I watch over them, laugh with them, it’s fun. At 1 AM, Galia and I say goodbye.”
Topol also had a passion for charity — especially when it came to kids. He helped co-found the Israeli branch of Variety, the children’s charity, and in 2012, he founded the Jordan River Village, a camp for kids with disabilities and chronic illnesses from all different backgrounds and walks of life. Inspired by a similar village founded by Paul Newman, Jordan River Village welcomed thousands of kids to the idyllic location for some respite and recreation.
For years, Topol visited the village twice a week, even though it was an hour and a half by car from his home. In an interview with Niv Gilboa, he revealed that he’d often cry during these visits. He called the village “the most significant thing he did in [his] life.”
Topol spent the last years of his life battling Alzheimer’s. The last day of his life, he was surrounded by his loved ones. “He’s with us in the house, surrounded by all his famiy,” his son Omer told Mako. “All the grandchildren have gotten together and are sitting around…. he’s taken care of, surrounded, loved, embraced.”
Through his iconic Tevye, his other roles and his philanthropy, Topol has blessed so many of us. May his memory be always for a blessing.