Theodore Bikel, former Wiltonian, dies at 91
Longtime Wilton resident Theodore Bikel died of natural causes at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles on Tuesday, July 21, at the age of 91.
Bikel, who referred to himself as “a general practitioner in the world of the arts,” was known for his versatility.
He was a world-renowned actor, as well as a folksinger, guitarist, author, lecturer, raconteur, activist and arts advocate.
Bikel was born in Vienna, Austria, in May 1924, to Miriam and Josef Bikel, who were Jewish immigrants from Bukovina in Central Europe.
Following the Nazi occupation of Austria in 1938, Bikel and his parents fled to Palestine.
Bikel — who was fluent in Hebrew, Yiddish and German with a “respectable command of English and French,” according to bikel.com — had planned to study and teach comparative linguistics.
However, he was more drawn to theater and joined the Habimah Theatre as an apprentice actor in 1943.
In 1944, Bikel co-founded the Israeli Chamber Theatre, and in 1946, he entered London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and graduated with honors two years later.
In London, Bikel performed in Sir Laurence Oliver’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire and won acclaim playing the Russian Colonel in Peter Ustinov’s The Love of Four Colonels.
Known for creating the role of Baron von Trapp in the original Broadway production of The Sound of Music, Bikel’s roster of memorable Broadway performances also include:
- Tonight in Samarkand.
- The Rope Dancers.
- The Lark.
He starred in a number of other plays nationwide, according to bikel.com. In 1967, he began touring as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof — a role he played more than 2,000 times.
Bikel was twice nominated for Broadway’s Tony Award and had more than 150 roles in movies and television series, according to IMDB.com, including:
- The African Queen (1951).
- The Enemy Below (1957).
- The Defiant Ones (1958).
- The Blue Angel (1959).
- My Fair Lady (1964).
For his role as Sheriff Max Muller in The Defiant Ones, Bikel received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor, as well as a Laurel Awards nomination for top male supporting performance.
In April 2005, Bikel received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Live Performance.
Bikel became a United States citizen in 1961. That same year, he founded the Newport Folk Festival. As a folksinger, Bikel maintained an active concert schedule throughout the country and abroad, according to bikel.com.
He sang folk songs in nearly 20 languages, all the while accompanying himself on guitar, mandolin, balalaika and harmonica.
As a folksinger, Bikel recorded a number of albums and performed on college campuses and in concert halls nationwide. He even performed at a benefit show at the Norwalk Jewish Community Center in 1981.
Activist and advocate
Bikel was active in the civil rights movement for many years, and was elected a delegate to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
Bikel also served as:
- Senior vice president of the American Jewish Congress.
- President of the Actors’ Equity Association (1973-1982).
- Member of the National Council on the Arts (1977-1982).
- Vice president of the International Federation of Actors (1981-1991).
- Board member of Amnesty International USA.
At the time of his death, Bikel had been the president of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America (4A’s) for more than years.
Family and Wilton
Bikel lived on Honey Hill Road in Wilton for many years with his second wife, Rita Weinberg Call, with whom he had two sons, until 2011.
While living in Wilton, Bikel often entertained here and nearby. He and his wife helped open the Wilton Arts Council’s Arts Festival ’79 by hosting a music- and art-filled preview gala at their home in 1979.
Bikel starred in Jeffrey Sweat’s The Value of Names as part of the Westport Arts Center’s Plays-in-Progress series in 1988. And he performed at the Jewish Home for the Elderly of Fairfield County in Fairfield.
Bikel and Call divorced in 2008 and their Wilton home was sold three years later.
According to a 2012 Wilton Library press release, a “treasure trove of books” from the Bikel household helped supply the library’s 2012 Gigantic Book Sale fund-raiser.
Bikel is survived by his fourth wife, Aimee Ginsburg, sons Robert and Daniel, stepsons Zeev and Noam Ginsburg, and three grandchildren.
According to bikel.com, Bikel’s wish was that donations go to either The Actors Fund (actorsfund.org) or Mazon (mazon.org).