Chaim Topol, a leading Israeli actor who captivated generations of theater and film audiences with his portrayal of Tevye, the charismatic and long-suffering milkman in “Fiddler on the Roof,” has died in Tel Aviv, Israeli leaders said Thursday. He was 87 years old.
The cause was not immediately disclosed.
Israeli leaders tweeted their memories and condolences to Topol’s family on Thursday.
Israel’s ceremonial president, Isaac Herzog, hailed Topol as “one of Israel’s most outstanding actors,” who “filled movie screens with his presence and, above all, penetrated deep into our hearts.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Topol’s “contribution to Israeli culture will continue to exist for generations.” .
Benny Gantz, Israel’s former defense minister, praised Topol for helping Israelis connect with their roots.
“We laugh and cry at the same time for the deepest wounds in Israeli society,” he wrote of Topol’s performance.
Yair Lapid, Israel’s opposition chief, said Topol taught Israelis “the love of culture and the love of the land.”
Topol’s charity, Jordan River Village, also announced his death, paying tribute to him as an “inspiration” whose “legacy will continue for generations to come.”
Winner of two Golden Globe Awards and nominated for both an Academy Award and a Tony Award, Topol has long ranked among Israel’s most decorated actors. Most recently, in 2015, he was recognized for his contributions to film and culture with the Israel Lifetime Achievement Award, his country’s most prestigious honor. Until a few years ago, he remained involved in the theater and said that he still received requests to play Tevye.
Topol began acting in a theater company in the Israeli army in the 1950s, where he met his future wife, Galia. His first big breakthrough was the lead role in the 1964 hit Israeli film “Sallah Shabati,” about the plight of Middle Eastern immigrants in Israel. The film made history as the first Israeli film to earn an Academy Award nomination and also brought Topol his first Golden Globe.
Two years later, he made his English-language film debut opposite Kirk Douglas in “Cast a Giant Shadow.” But the role of his life came in the long-running musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” in which he played the dairy lead, Tevye, a Jewish father trying to uphold his family’s cultural traditions despite the turmoil that ensued. seizes his Russian shtetl.
With his rich voice, folkloric wits and commanding stage presence, Tevye de Topol, driving his horse-drawn buggy and delivering milk, butter and eggs to the wealthy, became a folk hero in Israel and around the world.
After years of playing Tevye on the London stage and on Broadway, he landed the title role in the 1971 film version directed by Norman Jewison, winning the Golden Globe for Lead Actor and receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. He lost to Gene Hackman on “The French Connection.”
Topol has performed the role more than 3,500 times on stage, most recently in 2009. With the help of extensive makeup and wardrobe, he first played the much older, burly milkman in his early 30s, then allowed the role to catch up with his own age. .
Topol faced stiff competition to secure the role in Jewison’s hit film: dozens of talents have played Tevye in more than a dozen languages since Fiddler on the Roof first appeared. Topol has said that his personal experience as a descendant of Russian Jews helped him bond with Tevye and deepen his acting.
In an interview with the Associated Press from his Tel Aviv home in 2015, on the occasion of accepting the Israel Lifetime Achievement Award, Topol charted his meteoric rise from modest beginnings to global fame.
“I didn’t grow up in Hollywood. I grew up on a kibbutz,” she said. “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 to wherever and the immigration officer says: ‘Topol, Topol, are you Topol?’”
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Topol also starred in more than 30 other films, including the title role in “Galileo,” Dr. Hans Zarkov in “Flash Gordon,” and tinfoil-turned James Bond ally Milos Columbo in “For Your Eyes Only,” with Roger Moore.
But it became synonymous with Tevye’s role. Pouring her heart out on her impoverished Jewish community over the years, Topol made audiences laugh and cry from the Broadway and West End stages.
“How many people know each other on one side? How many people in my profession are known throughout the world?” he told the AP. “I am not complaining.”
However, Topol said that sometimes she needed to look beyond acting to find meaning in her life. He devoted much of his later years to charity as chairman of the board of Jordan River Village, a camp that cares for Middle Eastern children with life-threatening diseases.
“I am interested in charities and find it more rewarding than running from one (acting) role to another,” he said. ”When you’re successful in a movie and the money is flowing, yes, obviously, it’s very nice. But to tell you that’s the most important thing, I’m not sure.”
Topol is survived by his wife and three children.