Haim Topol, the iconic Israeli actor who enthralled generations of theater-goers and movie viewers with his portrayal of Teffi, the long-suffering and charismatic milkman in “Fiddler on the Roof,” Israeli leaders announced Thursday. He was 87 years old.
The reason was not immediately revealed.
On Thursday, Israeli leaders tweeted their memories and condolences to the Topol family.
The Honorary President of Israel, Isaac Herzog, praised Topol as “one of Israel’s most outstanding actors”, who “filled cinema screens with his presence and above all entered the depths of our hearts”.
Benny Gantz, Israel’s former defense minister, praised Topol for helping Israelis connect with their roots.
Of Topol’s performance, he wrote: “We laughed and wept at the same time at the deep wounds of Israeli society.”
Yair Lapid, the head of the Israeli opposition, said Topol taught Israelis to “love culture and love the land”.
Topol’s charity, the Jordan River Village Foundation, also announced his death, hailing him as an “inspiration” whose “legacy will live on for generations to come.”
A recipient of two Golden Globe Awards and a nominee 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 celebrated for his contributions to film and culture with the Israel Lifetime Achievement Award, his country’s highest honor. Until a few years ago, he was still involved in theater and said he was still getting 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 major achievement was the lead role in the 1964 hit Israeli film Salah Shabati, about the hardships of immigrants from the Middle East to Israel. The film made history as the first Israeli film to receive an Academy Award nomination, and also gave Topol his first Golden Globe Award.
Two years later, he made his English-language film debut alongside Kirk Douglas in “Cast a Giant Shadow”. But the turn of his life came in the long-running musical Fiddler on the Roof, in which he played the protagonist dairy-man, Teffi, a Jewish father trying to preserve his family’s cultural traditions despite the turmoil sweeping their Russian estates.
With his rich voice, popular jokes and powerful stage presence, Tevye of Topol, who drives his horse-drawn cart and delivers milk, butter and eggs to the rich, has become a famous hero in Israel and around the world.
After years playing Tevye on stage in London and on Broadway, he scored the lead role in the 1971 Norman Jeison-directed film version, winning a Golden Globe Award for Lead Actor and being nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. He lost to Gene Hackman in The French Connection.
Topol has played the role over 3,500 times on stage, most recently in 2009. With the help of heavy makeup and costume work, he first portrayed an older, heavier dairy worker in his 30s and literally his age in the role.
Topol faced stiff competition to land the role in the hit film Jewison — dozens of talents have played Tevye in more than a dozen languages since “Fiddler on the Roof” debuted. Topol said his personal experience as a descendant of Russian Jews helped him connect with Teffi and deepen his performance.
In an interview with the Associated Press from his home in Tel Aviv in 2015, on the occasion of accepting Israel’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Topol traced his meteoric rise from humble beginnings to global fame.
“I didn’t grow up in Hollywood. I grew up on a kibbutz.” “Sometimes I’m surprised when I come to China or when I come to Tokyo or when I come to France or when I come anywhere, and the clerk in the immigration department says ‘Tobol, tobol, are you tobol?'” “
Topol has also starred in more than 30 other films, including the title role in “Galileo”, Dr. Hans Zarkov in “Flash Gordon” and James Bond ally Milos Columbo in “For Your Eyes Only” alongside Roger Moore.
But it has become synonymous with only one role – Tevye. Pouring his heart out to his impoverished Jewish community over the years, Topol has made audiences laugh and cry from Broadway and the West End.
“How many people are known for one part? How many people are known in my profession all over the world?” he told the Associated Press. “I do not complain.”
However, Topol said he sometimes needs to look outside of acting to find meaning in his life. He devoted much of his later years to philanthropy as chairman of the board of directors of Jordan River Village, a camp serving Middle Eastern children with life-threatening illnesses.
He said, “I am interested in charities and find it more satisfying than going from one (acting) part to another.” “When you succeed in a movie and the money is pouring in, yeah, it’s obviously 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.
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