Sallah Shabati, the character that launched Chaim Topol's acting career, also threatened to typecast him as a mere impressionist. But thanks to Topol’s great talent and determination, what could have been an obstacle to a rich and varied career became the role of a lifetime. Topol’s wife Galia and son Omer discuss the role that became the actor’s ticket to the international stage and screen…
Hearing the name Chaim Topol inevitably brings to mind either Sallah Shabati from the film of the same name, or Tevye the Milkman from Fiddler on the Roof. Indeed Sallah, the role that launched Topol’s international career, has largely become synonymous with the well-known actor. It was therefore surprising to learn that it was this very role, which Topol performed so brilliantly, that almost became an obstacle on his path to a theater career. Can you imagine Chaim Topol being overlooked for major acting roles? That unimaginable scenario for Israel’s first international film star did not come to pass for the simple reason that Topol did not believe for a moment that it could, and he also went on to prove why not.
Our story begins with a Hebrew article published in Maariv in May 1964, about two weeks before the Israeli premiere of the film Sallah Shabati. The article states that when Topol left the Batzal Yarok (“Green Onion”) performing troupe to set up the Haifa Theater, he was asked what he wanted with theater since the only role he knew how to play was the character of Sallah, a Mizrahi Jewish immigrant, newly arrived in Israel. To this Topol replied, “I’m not worried. . . I’ve already proven to myself and to others that I’m able to go beyond all of this Sallah business.” It sounds absurd, looking back at his great international success, but just imagine how such criticism at the beginning of one’s career can be an obstacle. Topol, it seems, took it all in stride.
Topol, like many Israeli entertainers of his generation, got his start in the IDF’s performance ensembles and theater troupes.
“Topol fell by accident into the Nahal troupe,” says Galia Topol, his wife of 66 years who herself was part of the second-year class of the Israeli army’s Nahal performing troupe. “He was in the middle of an eight-month Nahal training course. At the time, he and a couple of friends performed together as entertainers and Chaim was the resident comedian. One evening, the first-year Nahal troupe, with Yossi Banai and Yona Atari [famous Israeli performers], came to perform for them, and everyone decided not to laugh for the entire show. And that’s how it was—no one laughed the entire evening. Then the troupe asked Topol and his friends to come on stage and within minutes they had the whole audience rolling on the floor. That’s how Chaim ended up being selected for the Nahal troupe.”
In 1955, Ephraim Kishon, the famous Israeli author, director and satirist, collaborated with the Nahal troupe, composing a skit titled “The New Social Worker”. This was the first appearance of the character Sallah Shabati. It turns out that Topol played a big part in the creation of the skit, even before inhabiting the written character. “The Nahal [troupe] decided to introduce some more serious material,” says Galia. “Chaim thought to turn to Kishon. They didn’t know each other, but before the army, Chaim had been a printer at the Davar newspaper where Kishon worked, and he felt he could approach him. Kishon wrote the character of Sallah for Chaim. Topol was actually opposed to the serious skit, and he wasn’t alone. We all thought that a serious skit wasn’t right for the troupe. But Kishon insisted and this was the army after all, so that’s what was decided, and we all went along with it.” Galia also participated in the skit, eventually playing the role of the social worker sergeant after Nechama Hendel left the troupe.
Today it’s likely that no one would think to cast the young Ashkenazi Topol as the older Mizrahi Sallah , but one cannot judge a nearly 60-year-old film by today’s standards. When the film came out, Israeli public opinion was firmly behind the idea of a societal melting pot, in the hope that within a generation or two the question of identity would become unimportant. Topol received quite a bit of criticism for portraying a character who at times appeared ridiculous and laughable, but as a professional actor he took the role extremely seriously, approaching it in the spirit of the times. He embodied Sallah regardless of the essential difference between himself the actor and the character.
Did Topol do anything special to prepare for the role? In one interview he said that the director David Bergman used the Stanislavsky method and that preparing for the role was intense.
“He took his training for the role very seriously. He spent hours in m’aabarot [transit camps for new immigrants to Israel], studying the language, the diction and just listening. He also got the idea for the hat from there and one time he came home especially to look for his beret from his own schooldays. Chaim immersed himself in the character, but he was also certain that it would not be appreciated by the audience, mainly because he thought the sketch was too serious and not suitable for the troupe. But Kishon insisted and it became a hit.”
Topol and the rest of the troupe learned very quickly that they had been wrong, and the audience welcomed Sallah with open arms. “The skit was performed more than 500 times on stage,” recalls Galia. “Already at the general rehearsal, the Nahal commander, the chief education officer and other senior officers sat in the front row, and when the Sallah skit came on they burst out laughing, even before anyone started speaking. As soon as Topol came on stage they started laughing. We looked at them and didn’t understand what was so funny, but they burst out laughing—this was largely Kishon’s genius.”
But even Kishon himself recognized that Sallah Shabbti’s enormous success was due in no small part to Topol’s genius. When asked about this once, Kishon said that “the secret of its success lay in the perfect union between actor and character, a rare stage phenomenon.”
“There is no doubt that Chaim completely embodied the role as well as grasped Kishon’s critique,” Galia says. “He conveyed it thrillingly on stage. It was that rare connection between Kishon’s ability to provoke sympathetic laughter while revealing the [character’s] soul and Chaim’s acting ability. It was not for nothing that they were friends and partners for many years after.”
Topol continued to collaborate with Kishon, playing the character of Sallah for years. After his army service Topol played Sallah in the sketches “Ziggy and Habuba” and “Cat in the Sack” as part of the Batzal Yarok troupe that he founded with Uri Zohar, another major Israeli talent. In fact, Topol played Sallah Shabati on stage from 1954 to 1960, fleshing him out in form and spirit in five different skits to the delight of theater-goers.
For Topol, it was time to move on to the next career stop—the repertory theater, and thus, he found himself among the founders of the Haifa Theater, whose establishment was initiated by the mayor at the time, Abba Hushi. “During the Haifa Theater period, there was no Sallah,” says Galia. “Chaim was one of the first to join the troupe and the first thing he did there was The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Yosef Milo, in which he played Petruchio. I remember he had to wear tights and he found it very embarrassing.”
Did these six years in which he played and became identified with Sallah make people think that that was all he could do?
“First of all, Sallah is a multi-layered character, so being identified with him is not a bad thing,” replies Galia. “But I don’t remember anything like that. Maybe people thought that, but Chaim didn’t think so. He knew he was a serious actor and set himself goals and the fact is he was able to achieve them and more.”
“I don’t think that Sallah eclipsed [Topol] at any point, but there is no doubt that he got under his skin in some sense,” says Omer Topol, Galia and Chaim’s son. “He also definitely brought him home, for example in the mannerism of throwing the backgammon dice,” he says and they both laugh and demonstrate. “It isn’t just idle talk about the connection between an actor and a character, because in this case there definitely was, only in this instance the actor was also much more than that.”
There is no doubt of Topol’s acting abilities, but it seems that in the first years of his career, Sallah cast a shadow nevertheless. Topol’s personal archive, which was scanned and made available on the National Library of Israel website, also sheds a different light on the subject. In an article published two weeks before the release of the movie Sallah Shabati, Topol remarks that quite a few people raised an eyebrow when he moved to the repertory theater because they thought he was unable to play other characters. Although theater critics were unanimous about Topol’s phenomenal success as Petruchio, it seems that even people who knew Topol’s abilities initially shared this feeling that Chaim was Sallah and nothing else. An excerpt from Ma’ariv written after the opening of The Taming of the Shrew, suggests that even Kishon didn’t see Topol as a serious actor in the beginning. “Imagine Chaim Topol playing the part of an Italian nobleman,” Kishon joked as he tried to demonstrate the concept of absurdist humor to the audience.
It seems that the 26-year-old Topol was determined to prove to everyone that he was much more than Sallah. In hindsight, after two Golden Globe Awards, an Oscar nomination, countless plays, including on the stages of the West End and Broadway, one James Bond film, and also the Israel Prize, the Kinor David Prize and a slew of international and other awards, it is clear that Topol certainly succeeded in his mission.
But then, in the early 1960s, after he had already proven himself on the theater stage, the idea of a film came up and essentially brought Topol back together with Sallah. Did Topol want to return to this character again?
“Chaim and Kishon were partners,” Galia says. “It was both of their dreams to expand the five Sallah sketches that had been performed up to that point into a movie,” she says. “Production began when Menachem Golan entered the picture. Chaim as usual was skeptical. Kishon kept telling him that the film was good, but Chaim refused to believe it. However, he was completely committed to it and felt tremendous responsibility for its success. Since at the time he was still an actor with the Haifa Theater, he would finish performing the Brecht play The Caucasian Chalk Circle at night, and go straight to Tel Aviv to film. He would drive like a madman and get to Tel Aviv in under an hour. He would film, then drive back to Haifa to rehearse, put on another show that evening and then sleep for the night, only to do it all over again the next day. While making the film, he appeared in several plays, also in Rashomon and Karnafim.”
Looking back, Topol had nothing to regret about agreeing to reprise the role that has become so identified with him. Sallah Shabati, the first film directed by Ephraim Kishon, was an immediate massive hit, winning the Golden Globe and receiving Israel’s first Oscar nomination. Sallah’s international success was also the springboard for Topol’s own international career. “Chaim was happy when the film received such a warm reception when it came out,” concludes Galia. “Despite the doubts, he was fully committed to Sallah Shabati and gave it his all. His ability to do it all is part of his inner drive. He proved that he can be Sallah, or Petruchio, or Azdak in The Caucasian Chalk Circle.” Topol has proven that he is an actor of diverse abilities and that no role can cast a shadow on his bright star.