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Farewell Topol

Known by his last name alone and beloved for his performance as Tevye in both the musical and film, Topol’s death was announced by Israel’s president

Chaim Topol as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. He has died aged 87. Photograph: Cine Text / Allstar/Sportsphoto Ltd. / Allstar

Chaim Topol, the Israeli actor and singer best known for his performance as Tevye the Milkman in Fiddler on the Roof, has died at the age of 87.

Topol, who was widely known by his last name alone, died at home in Israel on Wednesday while surrounded by his family, local media reported. His son had recently confirmed that he had been diagnosed with dementia last year.

In a statement announcing Topol’s death, Israel’s president Isaac Herzog described him as a “gifted actor who conquered many stages in Israel and overseas, filled the cinema screens with his presence and especially entered deep into our hearts.”

Topol played Tevye in the stage musical over five decades, once estimating that he had performed the role more than 3,500 times. He also played the pious Jewish father in the 1971 film, for which he won a Golden Globe award for best actor, and was nominated for best actor at the Academy Awards.

Just 30 years old when he first began playing fiftysomething Tevye on stage in 1966, Topol used makeup and costuming to make himself appear older and heavier than his years; in 2009, when he finished performing the role in his 70s, he had to act younger than his years.

“How many people are known for one part? How many people in my profession are known worldwide? So I am not complaining,” he said in a 2015 interview. “Sometimes I am surprised when I come to China or when I come to Tokyo or when I come to France or when I come wherever and the clerk at the immigration says ‘Topol, Topol, are you Topol?’ So yes, many people saw [Fiddler], and it is not a bad thing.”

Chaim Topol with Roger Moore (left) in 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only.Photograph: Cinetext Collection/Sportsphoto/Allstar

Born in Tel Aviv in 1935, Topol enlisted in the Israeli army at the age of 18. There he became a member of an entertainment troupe, singing and acting on the road; one role he played during his time in the troupe was Sallah Shabati in comedic skits written by the future director and writer Ephraim Kishon, who would later direct Topol in a film adaptation in 1964.

Topol began to gain international recognition for his performance in the satire, which follows the titular character as he and his family navigate the chaos of Israeli immigration. Topol won a Golden Globe for most promising male newcomer, and Sallah Shabati was the first Israeli film to be nominated for best foreign film at the Academy Awards.

Two years later, Topol debuted as Tevye, replacing Shmuel Rodensky briefly in the Israeli production when the actor fell ill. Producer of the original Broadway show Harold Prince called Topol to audition for the upcoming West End production. To become fluent in English, Topol memorised the Broadway cast album and spent six months in London learning his part phonetically with a vocal coach.

A few months after opening, Topol returned to Israel when he was summoned during the Arab-Israeli six-day war and joined an entertainment troupe. He returned to London, appearing in more than 400 performances.

He was cast again as Tevye in the 1971 film after director Norman Jewison decided against using the Broadway actor Zero Mostel, who had made the role famous in the US. Topol won a Golden Globe for best actor for his performance in the film, and was nominated for best actor at the Academy Awards, losing to Gene Hackman in The French Connection.

He continued to play the role in various productions of Fiddler on the Roof around the US, London, Israel and Australia until 2009. He was nominated for a Tony award in 1991 for the 1991 Broadway revival.

Topol was cast in the lead role in Broadway musical The Baker’s Wife, but was fired after eight months by director David Merrick for unprofessional behaviour.

He landed roles in films including Galileo Galilei in the film Galileo, Dr Hans Zarkov in Flash Gordon and James Bond’s ally Milos Columbo in For Your Eyes Only. He dubbed the voice of Bagheera in the Hebrew-language version of The Jungle Book, and Rubeus Hagrid in the first two Harry Potter films.

In his later years, Topol wrote and illustrated books, and founded a nonprofit for children with special needs. In 2015, he was awarded the Israel prize, one of the country’s top honours.


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