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!?”
24 replies on “Theo”
Wonderful story. Thank you for sharing the memory and such a gorgeous piece of prose.
Thanks, David. We’re in Pleasantville now. Details to follow under separate cover!
That was great , what a wonderful post
You were so lucky to have known such a larger then life man
I only saw him once ,
About seven or eight years ago on stage in century village
A truly larger then life man
One of the first albums I ever bought was him singing wonderful folk songs
And what a coincidence
Yesterday we went to the woody Guthrie show at st michaels collage in Burlington Vermont
It was all the songs he had song on my first album back in 1962
Love those co-incidences! Woody’s son, Arlo sang at Theo’s 85th at Carnegie Hall, and Trish read a sonnet. Yes, he was larger!
This is so lovely, Colin.
Bless you Margery!
Brilliant, Colin. Thanks.
PS — Miss you and Trish!
Thank Barbara! Now we’re in Westchester details to follow.
Brother-in-law, as agent for The Blue Ridge Mountain Dancers, I sold a performance for eight of the dancers (the other eight were doing a summer “Annie Get Your Gun,” with producer/sheriff, Clu Gulager, near Cherokee) at the ’64 Newport Festival (their clip now celebrating 50 years on YouTube)–The 16,000 college kids liked them and Mike and Peet Seeger asked them back for ’65 Festival, where I met, backstage, Theodore Bikel., who could wave a guitar around while talking like it was a punctuation device–and, incidentally, sidestage, I witnessed Bobby Dylan, coming out in a head rag with a Fender Straocaster (which later auctioned just under a $million), Dylan “split the sixties,” three electric songs, “Maggie’s Farm,” with backup guitarist, Mike Bloomfield, turning up as loud as it would go. Then, “Like a Rolling Stone,” and I forget the name of the third song. Dylan’s “electric moment,” was an important part of the move to Rock and Roll. Writers disagree with some elements of the momrent, like Pete Seeger pulling the pluyg (Which he did not), the 16,000 college kids did shout for their money back–some say they booed Dylan off the stage (which did not happen)…It was a pretty exciting performance.
I met Theodore Bikel at a meal, where he was entirely gracious about whomever might want to talk to him. Did his movies include “Anastasia?”
You may enjoy the cloggers on YouTube, the fiddle player, wearing suit and hat, pressed into immediate service, by Mike Seeger, going to his car to get his fiddle–he was really good, Pappy Clayton McMichin, from Gid Tanner and the Skillet Likers of Atlanta (in the clip. I’m standing just below Pete Seeger on banjo.) I think McMichin had won a number of National fiddle competitions–he told me he had never seen clo dancing, and liked it–his music was ensemble and very strong.
Wow Joe, great to get all that history! Watched this clip:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmJj6LZogms – fabulous. When are you coming north? Now we have a spare room!
As ever, Col, you manage to put your finger on it. A splendid tribute.
Thanks Dave – at first I thought you’d said ‘in it’, but on a second glance saw as written – so important to get the prepositions right! Best ever, Col
Gorgeous tribute to an intensely special man, thank you!
A truly beautiful piece. Thank you.
Thanks Georgie – speak soon!
My condolences on the loss of your friend, Colin.
Such terrific memories to have.
All best wishes.
Thanks so much Steven.
You my dear are such a brilliant writer…A heartfelt post that brought tears to my eyes. So sorry for the loss of your friend. xo
What a lovely tribute, Colin. How’s married life?
Date: Sat, 1 Aug 2015 16:01:22 +0000 To: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks, Henny. Marriage is great!
A beautiful tribute Colin. Sorry for the loss of your friend.
I hope you and Trish are well, and enjoying Pleasantville.
Thanks, Peter. All well in P’ville!