Chaim Topol — universally known as just Topol — is playing Tevye, the milkman in Fiddler on the Roof, in what is being billed as a farewell tour. At 73, the Israeli actor has been a household name since the 1971 movie, which is one of the most popular movie musicals ever made. The stage show opens tonight at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Last Thursday, I had a phone interview with Topol from Fort Myers.
Ever hear from Norman Jewison, who directed the movie, these days?
Sure, I just saw him in Los Angeles two weeks ago. We had dinner together.
Does he still make movies?
He's 82, about 10 years older than I am, and he's in good shape. He wants to make another movie.
When you were cast in the movie, you were younger than Tevye is supposed to be, around 50.
That's right. I was 32 years old. Norman came in the last week of our performances of the stage show in London, and after he saw it, he said, "I want you to be my Tevye."
I will always cherish that I was molded in the part by two geniuses. One was Jerry Robbins, who directed me in London, and the other was Norman, who helped me tremendously to adjust to perform for the camera.
Now you're older than Tevye. What's the difference?
It's much easier to be older, I can tell you.
When I was 32, I thought that a man of 50 was very old. I had to restrain muscles to make sure that I didn't jump around and act too youngish.
Now I'm totally free to jump as much as I want. I think it makes a big difference. I think my work now is more natural than it used to be.
How many performances as Tevye have you given?
I read an interview in which you said the essence of the musical is the second act. I thought that was interesting, because it doesn't have your big numbers. Tradition, If I Were a Rich Man and Sunrise, Sunset are all in Act 1.
Well, yes, the singing numbers. But the second act has the drama. In the first act, until the wedding and the pogrom, we don't expect anything bad to happen. Okay, there's a little drama with one daughter, a little conflict with another daughter, but you don't expect anything terrible. But in the second act, I cry every night. I think the combination of entertainment and tears is the wonderful recipe of this show.
You've had some juicy character parts in movies, such as Dr. Hans Zarkov in Flash Gordon and Columbo in For Your Eyes Only.
Wonderful. Different material than Fiddler, but they were wonderful.
Are you recognized in airports and restaurants?
Sure, but of course, I don't wear my costume. I wear shorts and sandals. You would be surprised, when I open my mouth, people will say, "Topol?" They recognize the voice.
So you get recognized for Fiddler?
Actually, I look more now like Zarkov than Tevye in my private life. So people often recognize me from Flash Gordon.
Morality tale debuts
Here's a rare piece of theater: Complaint of the Indians in the Court of Death, a 16th century Spanish drama by Miguel de Carvajal. Directed by David Reynolds, a student at the University of South Florida, it will be performed at 6 p.m. Friday in a bucolic setting, the courtyard between Snell and Williams houses on the St. Petersburg campus. Free. (727) 873-4954.
"The play is fascinating," writes Thomas Hallock, USF assistant professor of English. "It stages the arguments of the great defender of indigenous rights, Bartolome de las Casas, before a tribunal of saints. The work is very short (it was part of one of those endless morality tableaus); David will set up the historical context and we'll follow with a roundtable discussion of literature and social justice. This reading will represent the third known performance ever, the first in English."
Last chance to talk back
I'll be hosting the talkback after tonight's final performance of the season in the Encore chamber music series at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg. Bassoonist Mark Sforzini, flutist Catherine Landmeyer and pianist Grigorios Zamparas will play works of Debussy, Poulenc, Beethoven, Sforzini and more. The concert is at 7:30 p.m., followed by refreshments and the talkback. $10-$20. (727) 822-3590; mypalladium.org.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.