A nominee for an Academy Award and a Tony Award, Topol long has ranked among Israel’s most decorated actors. More recently in 2015, he was celebrated for his contributions to film and culture with the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement, his country’s most prestigious honor.
Topol got his start in acting in a theatrical troupe in the Israeli army in the 1950s, where he met his future wife, Galia. He played the lead role as a family patriarch in the 1964 hit Israeli film “Sallah” (also called “Sallah Shabati”), a satire about the hardships of new Jewish immigrants from elsewhere in the Middle East as they settle in the new state of Israel.
“Topol … plays the seemingly cloddish patriarch, Sallah, as an adept, natural and, occasionally, comic clown. He is properly obsequious, dumb and, basically wily — a man who, it turns out, may not be equipped professionally but is wise enough to try every trick in the book to preserve himself and his brood,” film critic A.H. Weiler wrote in the New York Times.
But the role of his life arrived in “Fiddler on the Roof,” composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick’s musical adaptation of the Yiddish tales of Sholem Aleichem. The protagonist, Tevye, was a Jewish father trying to maintain his family’s cultural traditions despite the turmoil gripping their shtetl in czarist Russia.
The show’s themes of defending home, family and customs against the changing world — rendered with songs such as “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Tradition” — were widely embraced by audiences. With the exuberant Zero Mostel in the lead for much of the 1964-to-1972 Broadway run, the show won most of the top Tony Awards including best musical.
Topol performed as Tevye in Tel Aviv and London stage productions and was ultimately chosen over the scenery-chewing Mostel for the 1971 film adaptation over tough competition. Director Norman Jewison told the Boston Globe when the film came out that he disliked the sanitized slickness of most musicals and wanted for “Fiddler” an earthier feel, even if that meant riding a big-budget film on the shoulders of an actor largely unknown to Western audiences.
“I wanted a third-generation European actor for the role, a third-generation man who understood the background,” Jewison said. “I did not want a Second Avenue version of Tevye,” a line seen as a slap at Mostel’s showy performance style.
Topol said his personal experience as the descendant of Russian Jews helped him relate to Tevye and deepen his performance.
Topol received respectable reviews and earned a nomination for a best-actor Academy Award, although he lost out to Gene Hackman in “The French Connection.”
Literally aging into the role, Topol subsequently played the part more than 3,500 times onstage, most recently in 2009; his 1990-1991 Broadway reprise of “Fiddler” earned him a Tony nomination for best actor in a musical.
Topol also appeared in more than 30 other movies, including as the lead in the biopic “Galileo” (1975), Dr. Hans Zarkov in “Flash Gordon” (1980) and James Bond’s foil turned ally Milos Columbo in “For Your Eyes Only” (1981) alongside Roger Moore.
Chaim Topol was born in Tel Aviv, in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine, on Sept. 9, 1935. His father and mother, a plasterer and seamstress, respectively, were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He said his father also belonged to Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization.
In 1956, he married Galia Finkelstein. Survivors include his wife and three children.
He devoted much of his later years to charity as board chairman of Jordan River Village, a camp serving Middle Eastern children with life-threatening diseases.
In an interview with the Associated Press from his Tel Aviv home in 2015, on the occasion of accepting the Israel Prize, Topol traced his meteoric rise from modest beginnings to worldwide fame.
“I wasn’t brought up in Hollywood. I was brought up in a kibbutz,” he said. “Sometimes I am surprised when I come to China or when I come to Tokyo or when I come to France or when I come wherever, and the clerk at the immigration says, ‘Topol, Topol, are you Topol?’”