I met Theodore Bikel in 2006 when he, a sprightly 81 year old, and that young actress of my acquaintance Trish Conolly, were doing a two-handed play at the Coconut Grove Theatre in Miami. It was a domestic comedy about, among other things, the physical inconveniences of advancing years.
In Trish Theo found an acting partner who could match him on a stage, and I know that he loved working with her. Tamara, to whom he was married until her sudden death in 2012, and I, a bit like a couple of boxing coaches, would watch them rehearsing from the orchestra seats of the theatre. We would exchange whispered comments with each other, commissioning each other to deliver delicate notes to our respective partners. We all four became friends.
Theo died a little over a week ago.
He was a public figure. His C.V. as an actor covers all mediums at the highest and most celebrated levels in the profession; his prolific musicianship in live performances and recordings; his abilities as a linguist — he could sing in 21 languages and spoke five or six fluently; his co-founding of the Newport Folk Festival; his abilities as an autobiographer and as a raconteur; his tireless support of the Israeli cause, and his fearless speaking out against injustice; his 10 year presidency of the American Actors’ Equity Association (during which time he suggested the creation of the Manhattan Plaza). All this and more — including his 2,000 plus performances as Tevye the milkman – all this was just a part of who he was.
I did not meet him as any of the above. I knew him first as a big-framed, big-hearted man, with a persistent, in fact constant, deliciously salty sense of humour.
We last saw him at a screening of “Theodore Bikel: In The Shoes of Sholom Aleichem”. It had been a couple of years. At first I almost didn’t recognise him. He was always a big man with a barrel-chest. His frame had shrunk, and he was in a wheelchair. But then I heard his voice and I knew it was him – that unmistakable tone with its relish for life, still strong and vibrant.
After the screening there was a reception held in Theo’s honor. More than three hundred people were present. All the men wanted to embrace Theo, and all the women to kiss him. Aimee, whom he had married late in his still-vigorous ninth decade of life, enlisted me to help manage the crush. As I guided Theo’s chariot through the crowd, typically, he was telling me a joke that could have been part of a twenty-something’s stand up set.
We dined. Then he sang. We pushed him to the centre of the room in front of the band.
He sang two songs.
We listened, and I was aware that Trish was focussing on Theo, communicating with him silently, in a way that two people who have shared a stage can sometimes do. He was aware of that too, of course – amongst his general awareness of the audience. Such is part of the secret that all performers of quality share.
He sang as he always did with gusto, enthusiasm, and in the second song there was a detail that exactly expressed his brilliance as a performer. It was just a small twist of the head, a flicker of rapture in the smile, and the eyes half closed for a second, him uniting with the spirit of the music and sharing it.
It was an unannounced farewell.
Afterwards, outside, waiting with Aimee for a car to arrive, Trish and I stood by him on the sidewalk. We spoke little. After a delay there was a car at last. I helped him get in and I told him I loved him. After he died, as often happens, it was then that I knew how much.
He was widely loved. When he went, they dimmed the lights on Broadway.
Theo was steeped in the lore and the traditions of his culture, his race, and his faith. He was also man of immense humanity who knew that our only hope for peace on Earth is to also allow others to hold, in peace, other views, faiths, and cultures.
Not to say he wasn’t Jewish.
One time Theo was walking along in Manhattan’s Lower East Side when he was accosted by some evangelical Christians who tried to convert him on the spot. He listened patiently. His response was genius:
“I come from a very old tribe. For five thousand years we’ve been doing business with the Father, and now — you want me to talk to the Son!?”