Chaim Topol’s Unbelievable Journey to “Fiddler on the Roof”

The lead role? In English? In London? Dan Almagor, the translator of "Fiddler on the Roof" into Hebrew, almost laughed in Chaim Topol’s face when the actor told him he was auditioning for the role of Tevye the Milkman in the prestigious British production. Although he had seen Topol’s failure only a year before live on American television, he could not have been happier to admit his mistake…

Liron Halbriech
Chaim Topol on the set of the film "Fiddler on the Roof", the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In 1966, 31-year-old Chaim Topol, a well-known and beloved actor in Israel, had cast his sights on the great big world. A year before, he won the Golden Globe for “best new actor” for his role as Salah Shabbati, and played a supporting role alongside Kirk Douglas and Frank Sinatra in his first Hollywood film, Cast a Giant Shadow. Born and raised in Tel Aviv’s Florentine neighborhood, Topol struggled with English. He claimed his entire vocabulary at this point amounted to around fifty words.

Topol never imagined that a year later he would be performing on London’s West End stage speaking perfect English. Dan Almagor, who translated Fiddler on the Roof into Hebrew, also doubted Topol’s ability to take on a major role in the English language. He had good reason for thinking so, having seen with his own eyes Topol’s failed attempt at singing a song from Fiddler on the Roof in English.

In a column Almagor published in Maariv on April 30, 1967, he recounted Topol’s obstacle-laden “romance” with Tevye the Milkman that ended in a successful and long-lasting marriage, thanks not only to Topol’s personal talent and charm, but also to his grit and determination. With a mixture of wonder and satisfaction, Almagor told of how Topol, who just a year earlier couldn’t sing a single verse from the musical in English, won over London’s theater crowd. Almagor, who was in Los Angeles at the time pursuing his doctoral studies, had met Topol a few times on the latter’s visits to the US and witnessed first-hand the events that led to Topol playing Tevye. He even played a supporting role in Topol’s getting the part.

So, how did Topol get the coveted role on the London stage?

It’s a story that has everything—public failure, brilliant success and also the drama of a potential terrorist incident—all told in the effortlessly smooth language of the songwriter, translator and storyteller par excellence, Dan Almagor.

So, how did Topol get the coveted role on the London stage?

It’s a story that has everything—public failure, brilliant success and also the drama of a potential terrorist incident—all told in the effortlessly smooth language of the songwriter, translator and storyteller par excellence, Dan Almagor.

Photo from the film Cast a Giant Shadow, starring Kirk Douglas and Chaim Topol (with beard and keffiyeh), Kibbutz Hulda, 1965. This item is part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible through the collaboration of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.]

Almagor wrote in his article:

“The first time I spoke with Chaim Topol about his role as Tevye in the musical Fiddler on the Roof was about two years ago, on his first visit to Los Angeles to accept the Golden Globe award for his performance in Salah Shabbati. That same week, I had by chance just finished translating the musical into Hebrew, and Chaim and his wife Galia were the first Israelis to hear the Hebrew version of the play, when we were all sitting on the balcony of their room at the luxurious Beverly Hills Hotel. And since Chaim’s name was mentioned as one of the possible leads for the role in the Israeli production, alongside “Bomba” Tzur, I immediately sent a telegram to the Israeli producer in Hebrew (in English transliteration), using these exact words: “Please notify me who will play Tevye in Israel Stop Topol or Bomba Stop If Topol is chosen we can work on the role here in Los Angeles.”

Minutes after Almagor sent the telegram to Israel, he received a polite phone call from a Western Union representative. After a several minutes-long conversation during which Almagor was trying to understand why Western Union was refusing to send the telegram, the representative asked him, “But what is ‘Bomba’?” Almagor, of course, had been referring to the Israeli actor Yosef “Bomba” Tzur, who was finally chosen to play Tevye the Milkman in the first Israeli production of the musical. The Western Union representative was concerned that this was some kind of hidden message being sent about a terrorist bomb plot. After Almagor explained the misunderstanding to the representative’s satisfaction, the telegram was finally sent out.

Chaim Topol with his family, 1970, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Topol didn’t get the part in Giora Godik’s Israeli production of Fiddler. After Bomba Tzur eventually retired from the role, Topol split it with Shmuel Rodensky, playing it on alternate nights for a total of 40 performances on the Israeli stage. Almagor even hinted in his article that Topol appeared in the Hebrew production for only about a month and a half because Godik wasn’t satisfied with his acting.

A year later, Almagor and Topol met again, this time behind the scenes of Danny Kaye’s successful TV show. Topol was a guest on the show to promote the movie Cast a Giant Shadow, and Kaye, who knew that Topol had played Tevye in the Israeli production of Fiddler on the Roof, suggested that they sing a song together from the musical, in English. They chose the song “L’Chaim.”

But then they ran into a problem. Almagor recalled:

“After two attempts at singing the song in English, Danny Kaye turned to his young Israeli colleague, and said with a smile: ‘You know, Chaim, instead of you breaking your teeth to sing the song in English, I will sing it in the Hebrew translation!’ It was an amusing idea, and Chaim was quick to introduce me to Danny Kaye and the crew as the play’s translator. ‘Great,’ said Danny. ‘Write down the Hebrew words to the song using English letters.’”

Here Almagor and Topol encountered a new problem—neither of them could remember Almagor’s translation. Almagor had to recreate the translation he had written for the song on the spot while Danny Kaye and his team waited. You can see the result in this video, in which Danny Kaye reveals the reason why they are singing the Hebrew version of the song. You can see how Topol struggles with English, and how uncomfortable he is conversing in a language that is not his mother tongue:

After that experience, it’s no wonder that Almagor was taken by surprise by Topol’s request the next time they met.

Almagor was finishing up a 10-week visit to Israel, and on the last night of his stay he went to see Topol on the set of the movie Ervinka. Between takes, Topol called him over and asked him for a small favor. “But promise not to tell anyone. So they won’t make fun,” Topol said. Almagor promised, and Topol asked: “As soon as you get back to the States, send me the English version of Fiddler on the Roof right away.” “Why,” Almagor asked: “He looked around carefully, to make sure no one was listening. ‘There’s a chance that I will be invited to London soon, for an audition in connection with Fiddler,’ he told me.  ‘And I want to surprise them, and learn a bit of the English text before the trip.’ ‘For what part?’ I asked innocently. ‘I know you won’t believe it,’ he stammered, ‘it’s for the role of Tevye’.”

Although he had promised Topol, Almagor found it hard to stop himself from laughing.

“The leading role? In English? In London? I remembered how Danny Kaye preferred to sing ‘L’Chaim!’ in Hebrew instead of waiting for Topol to learn the English. I thought of the London theater. Sir Laurence Olivier, Peter Brook. I remembered the promises to the other stars of the Israeli Fiddler on the Roof production – tempting promises of performances abroad that ended in bitter disappointment. It seemed that Topol read my thoughts. ‘What do you care?’’ he whispered. ‘Send the text. Promise?’… I confess that I didn’t believe for a minute that he would get the part. I didn’t even think he would go to London for the audition.”

“A Great Success for Topol in London” – Lamerhav, February 29, 1967

Despite his skepticism, Almagor kept his word and when he returned to the US he sent Topol the English text. He was angry with himself for spending more than two dollars on mailing it to Israel. For several months, Almagor heard nothing from Topol. He assumed he had failed the audition, and thought no more of it.

Then came the reviews from London. Everyone was praising the amazing Israeli actor playing the role of Tevye on the West End stage. Almagor hurried to send Topol a telegram, this time in English:

“I was happy to hear that London’s Rothschild will soon be singing ‘If I Were Topol’. Stop. Just remember, you still owe me two dollars and ten cents.” [The famous line “If I were a rich man…” was translated into Hebrew as “If I were a Rothschild…”]

Chaim Topol and the actors of Fiddler on the Roof. From the play at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London. A selection of archival footage from the Chaim Topol Archive is available digitally. Courtesy of the family and with the collaboration of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and University of Haifa

Our circuitous story is not over yet. Two months later, according to Almagor, he flew from New York to Tel Aviv. He decided to stop over for one night in London to watch Chaim Topol playing Tevye the Milkman in English with his own eyes, and see if there was any truth to the rage reviews gushing over his acting performance. He got his answer already during the taxi ride from the airport:

“The red-nosed taxi driver asked me in a typical cockney accent how long I was in town for.  And when he heard that I would only be in London for one night, he immediately said: ‘Well, there’s only one thing you mustn’t miss, especially if you’re in London for one night… there’s a new musical in town, not to be missed,’ he said to me, ‘… that is, if you manage to get a ticket. Fiddler on the Roof. Have you heard of the play? It features a young, outstanding actor. Topol, from Israel. You know, Israel…’ I swear to you this is word for word what he said. And this without me giving him the slightest hint that I’m Israeli.” The driver surprised Almagor with his knowledge of the musical and its star. He told Almagor the content of the reviews praising Topol and even gossiped about his salary, which was higher than that of any other actor on the London stage at the time.

“Then the driver commented sadly: ‘You know, I’m afraid you won’t see him there again, in Israel,’ and after a second thought he added with the same melancholy attitude, ‘Actually, we too will surely lose him soon.’ He suddenly spoke of Topol as if he had been a British national treasure for generations,” wrote Almagor in his article.

Maariv, August 6, 1971

When Almagor met Topol backstage before the show, he found the actor in a thoughtful mood: “‘Remember how we used to peek in the newspaper… to see what plays were currently being performed in London and who the new actors were that had been discovered on its stages?’ mused Topol while putting on his makeup. ‘To tell you the truth, I didn’t realize the wealth of possibilities for an actor in this play until I saw Rodensky. Even Zero Mostel [the first actor to play Tevye the Milkman in the Broadway production – L.H.] didn’t make that much of an impression on me. It’s a pity that I didn’t have any director or assistant in Israel who could work with me on the part the way we should have.  But here—we spent four whole months working. There are no shortcuts here’.”

Almagor returned to his seat in the audience and excitedly awaited Topol’s entry on the stage.

“I had seen five different performances of Fiddler on the Roof and was a bit worried about Topol’s appearance on the English stage,” Almagor wrote. “But from the first moment he stepped on stage, I knew there was no more reason to fear. Our ‘Salah’ controls the audience and the stage like a ‘star’ and his English is nothing like what it was the year before on Danny Kaye’s show… here and there, one can still sense some stiffness, due to the foreign language, but this too will surely pass with time… and when the show ended, and the London audience rose to its feet, enthusiastically applauding to loud chants of ‘Bravo! Bravo!’, I had to pinch myself…”

A poster ad promoting the film version of Fiddler on the Roof, the National Library of Israel Ephemera Collection

A few years after successfully playing Tevye in the West End, Chaim Topol got the role of Tevye the Milkman in the Hollywood production of the musical. He won the part over veteran actors, even Zero Mostel, who had originated the role on Broadway. Generations of actors had embraced Mostel’s iconic performance of Tevye on stages around the world, but when it came time to make the movie based on the musical, Norman Jewison, the film’s director, felt that Mostel would overshadow the film with his larger-than-life performance. “I didn’t feel he was a Russian Milkman,” he said in a documentary about Fiddler on the Roof. Then Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist for Fiddler on the Roof, approached him and said: “‘You know, there is this Israeli guy, Topol, playing the role of Tevye in London.” “I flew to London. I saw Topol and I saw the play and suddenly it felt true, it felt credible. I felt like I wasn’t watching an American production with someone from Brooklyn. I felt he was proud to be Jewish,” Jewison recalled.

Fiddler on the Roof was also an international success as a film and won three Oscars and two Golden Globes in 1971, one of them for Topol for his performance in the film. Chaim Topol would return to the role of Tevye the Milkman over the years, including in a Broadway production in the late 1980s. In 1997 he again sang “If I were a Rothschild”, in Hebrew, in the Avraham “Deshe” Pashanel production here in Israel.


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