Jewish stage and screen star Theodore Bikel died Tuesday, July 21, of natural causes at the age of 91 at a Los Angeles hospital.
Bikel was known internationally for such roles as Capt. Georg Von Trapp in the original Broadway staging of “The Sound of Music” — “Edelweiss” was written for him during the show’s previews — and Tevye in more than 2,200 performances of “Fiddler on the Roof.” But he was also known in Atlanta for his local appearances and his avid support for the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.
Bikel appeared onstage in February for two sold-out screenings of “Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem” on the closing night of the 15th festival.
Judy Marx, who co-chaired the film selection committee for this year’s festival, said in January that there was never any doubt Bikel’s performance film would either open or close the festival. From the founding of the film festival, she said, he offered to help in any way he could, and he made multiple appearances.
Bikel also was a devoted proponent of Yiddish culture. During his film festival talk in February, he said: “In Israel when I was young, no one wanted you to speak Yiddish. It was identified with Jews as victims, losers.”
As a political activist, Bikel was a champion of downtrodden people as well as languages. In this year’s World Zionist Congress elections in the United States, he led the progressive Hatikvah slate, which won eight of the 145 seats.
Bikel was born in Vienna in 1924, but his family escaped to Palestine before World War II started. He trained as an actor, then in 1945 left for the Royal Academy in London, where he worked with Laurence Olivier. He moved on to Broadway in 1954 and became a U.S. citizen in 1961.