Written by: Josh Green
DURHAM, NC – You could perform “Fiddler on the Roof” every single day for six years and Chaim Topol would still have a few up on you.
“I first started when I was 30 playing the part,” he said at the Durham Performing Arts Center Wednesday. “My most difficult task was to make sure that I looked old enough to be the father of five daughters. For me then – 50 was old.”
“The task was that I [didn’t] break the image of an old man, so I trained myself to close certain muscles and not to do any movement that may disclose that I’m not 50. Today – I’m totally relaxed about it. I have no inhibitions of breaking the image of a man of 50.”
Now the veteran actor is in his 70s. It means he’s performed in Fiddler more than 2,500 times. He’s adding more to that list this week as the show hits the stage at the Durham Performing Arts Center. It runs through Sunday. The headlines say it’s Topol’s “farewell tour.” For ticket information, click here.
“I didn’t decide it,” he said. “The producers like to call it a farewell tour. But I hope that I’ll have another two or three farewell tours.”
Letting go of the character Tevye would be letting go of part of his life.
“In a way, it’s the story of my family,” he said. “Most important I had, bless their souls, parents who brought me up. I can tell you there isn’t a single night that I play this part that I don’t think of them.”
“There are lines in the play that sound as if my father just said them … or my mother.”
Topol, who still lives in Israel, believes Fiddler can teach a lot about tradition. And 42 years after he first performed Fiddler on the Roof on London’s West End in 1967, the message still gets to him.
“It’s a very funny show and a very sad show,” Topol said. “People cry. I cry every night.”
Yet the role of Tevye hasn’t consumed Topol.
Scroll down for a slideshow of Fiddler On The Roof
“I don’t want you to think this is the most important thing in my life,” he said. “The most important thing in my life – at least now – is a project that I’m working on. It’s a village that I’m building for children who suffer from life-threatening illnesses.”
The Jordon Village in the lower Galilee in Israel should open within the next couple of months. Forty years ago, Topol founded the largest children’s charity in the world, the Variety club. He’s been dealing with sick children ever since.
“I think that a society that doesn’t take care of those who can’t help themselves … especially children is not worthy to exist … can’t call themselves a society,” he said. “It’s a bunch of nothing.”
When he’s on tour, his wife still travels with him.
“She spoils me,” he said laughing.
Before each show, he has a tradition: an hour and a half warm-up that includes singing, push-ups and sit-ups.
“I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I try to keep fit,” he said. “I hope this farewell tour or tours will go on forever.”
He was pleased to see that a song from the show made it to the mainstream when Gwen Stefani recorded “Rich Girl,” an adaptation of “If I Were a Rich Man” from “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“I though it was very nice … very entertaining. I was surprised that no one else did it before,” he said. “I was surprised it came so late. But she did it very well; she did it very nicely.”
Topol said, as far as the show goes, it regenerates itself each year he takes part.
“You must remember that a job of an actor – whatever part he plays is to go on stage and whatever he says, whatever he sees, whatever he feels, whatever he hears is for the first time,” he said. “When you do it 2,500 times – you have a variation of nuisances that you can choose. Luckily, for me, I’m not playing with the same actors all those 2,500 times.”
“Every new actor who comes to play with me brings his own qualities which I have to relate to: his height, his smell, his eyes, his voice … and I have to react to what he brings. It keeps you fresh. Life keeps you fresh.”
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