An actor, producer, playwright, impressive portrait artist, and a chairman of the board of the “Jordan River Village“.
Chaim Topol is an Israeli actor, internationally renowned for his leading role as Tevye, in Fiddler On The Roof. He has received two Golden Globes, an Oscar nomination, a Tony Award, an award for a lifetime achievements, and list goes on.
Topol is synonymous with Fiddler on the Roof, yet the first role that propelled the young Topol to the international stage was his eponymous role in the 1964 Israeli comedy film Shalla Shabati. This film is a sharp social satire depicting the administrative chaos and hardship experienced by Jews immigrating to the new state of Israel from all over the world as they faced culture clashes and attempted manipulation by political parties.
His proudest achievement is help set up “Jordan River Village” for children with terminal illnesses. It has nothing to do with acting but everything with the real, unmasked Chaim Topol.
We met in his house in Tel Aviv, where mouth-watering smells of a homemade vegetarian lunch, prepared by his beautiful wife, Galia, were an added bonus.
RJ: Sallah Sabatti – Israel in the 50s
CT: The first sketch for Sallah Shabatti was staged when I was in the Army Theatre. Salla Shabatti began as a comedy. You must understand the social background of that period – Israel had about 600,000 people, but absorbed about one million Jews in four or five years. Waves came from North Africa, Russia, Poland and other countries. People who came to Israel had to live somewhere. There were all kinds of huts and tents. The country was very poor and the newcomers had little. They could read the Siddur, a Hebrew prayer book, but could not speak the language. You had people from different backgrounds speaking different languages, learning fast to communicate with each other, yet frustrated with bureaucracy and politicians attempts to manipulate them. This film is a satire that highlights the various aspects of those days.
The film was made in 1963, but I had started to play Sallah on stage when I was 18 or 19. We were worried when we first started rehearsing; we treated it as a drama. The director, Ephraim Kishon, was in charge of Sallah. But we were worried as the unfolding story was rather sad and we could not see the humour. We rehearsed for about a month. But Kishon was sure it would be funny. And then, the first time, as soon as I stepped on to the stage, people began to laugh. And Kishon explained it was because we took it seriously that it was funny. It emphasises the ridiculous elements in bureaucracy. We magnified the clash of cultures through the absurd and the ridiculous. The only thing the people seemed to have in common was God and past history.
RJ: You were 19 when you started performing the part of a 55 year old. How difficult was that?
CT: Very difficult! I went and sat in a maabara (a settlement for new immigrants, before they are dispersed and settled in permanent homes), and I met there a guy called Sallah with 7 or 8 children. I spent a week or ten days looking at him. I studied lots of older people but him in particular. He was full of love for his children- but they were miserable. There was no food! As an actor, at 19, I studied his walk, his speech, and so on. And I fell in love with him.
Every show we did during those years before the film had one or two sketches with the Sallah character. So I experienced the character about 700 times before the film. I knew exactly who the character was, how far he can go etc. The film was written completely for our abilities.
RJ: All written by Efraim Kishon?
CT: Yes. Kishon was a very, very clever person. So practical. He knew our strengths and weaknesses, what we could and couldn’t do. And this was his first film! So he hired a film photographer who won the Oscar for a famous film, High Noon. He was a big name. He agreed to come and work with us- and being backed by him was amazing. His wife was the continuity girl- a very important person in film directing! They backed us. The content was by us, and we knew that the look of the film would be professional. When we opened in 1963, it was 9 years after our first army show performance.
The film had no official financial backing: there was no subsidy. We injected our own money into it- myself, Kishon and Menachem Golan, who was a producer.
The film opened, and it became a big hit- the biggest hit in Israel! 1.5 million people came to see it – that’s everyone who can walk! The film upset and angered politicians as they were heavily criticised in the film. The kibbutzim did not like it either and a group of pseudo-intellectuals had something to say too! The public paid no paid attention. The film was a hit.
RJ: Is this the turning point in your career?
CT: It was because of Sallah that I got Fiddler on the Roof. Sallah was successful enough to be passed to international festivals. I got the award for ‘Best Actor’ at the San Francisco Festival. Then I won the Golden Globe in Los Angeles. And Kishon got a Golden Globe for Best Director. A little later I got invited to audition for Fiddler. They could not believe it was me when I went to the audition, because I was too young! They expected Sallah, who was old. Not me! I knew no English. I studied the songs. I sang, “If I was a rich man”, and then another song from Fiddler. It was the first audition in my life, in 1966. I must have sang 4 or 5 songs for them. They asked how many times I had seen the show. I said maybe 4 times. They couldn’t understand how I knew all the movements, all the songs from the show. I said no, you don’t understand… I’m currently performing in Fiddler, in Tel Aviv!
This is how I got the part. But again, I was only 30, but playing an elderly man. I think they didn’t believe, even though it was in front of them, that I could play someone that old.
RJ: Sallah is North African, Tevye in Fiddler, is Eastern European, but are similar in that both are economically disadvantaged, suffer humiliation but have charisma. However, each represents a very different cultural background and accent. How easy was it for you to change from one identity to the other?
CT: It is all about identity with the character. When I played Galileo, at the age of 40, I had to play the part across the ages. He starts at 42, then 56, then 60 or 70, then 84! You have to play all the ages. You have to find a technique to help break illusions, to break boundaries. One wrong gesture and you destroy the belief of your audience. This technique, thank God, I had the experience of perfecting from a very young age. During El Dorado people asked if I had a stuntman. But it was all me. We couldn’t afford stuntmen. The heart of the character, going back to your question, is the key. It is the love of children, the love of the family, the pain of being pushed. And pain is pain. That is what links them. People are the same, including the poor and the suffering. It’s all about universal emotions.
I played Fiddler in Japan. And part of me does not understand how they can be a part of the experience. But when a play is good, and the character is comprehensible, it just works. Personally, for me, to make those characters so good was the way I was able to rehearse. Sallah and Tevye. I understood the characters; I could play them in any situation.
RJ: How many times did you play Tevye?
CT: About 3500.
RJ: Do you find the parts become second nature? Or do you still have to put in the same amount of energy?
CT: This is a matter of discipline. There were eight performances per week. The person on Monday must enjoy it as much as the Saturday evening audience; that is my motto. It must always be the best that I can do.
RJ: In what way are you celebrating 50 years of Fiddler on the roof?
CT: There was a celebration in New York, at the Town Hall. Everyone who could be there was there. Unfortunately, Zero Mostel from the first production wasn’t there, and he was the one who really shaped the character. We all sang many of the songs: Tradition, To Life. We celebrated in Israel too. We may come to London as well.
RJ: Aside from acting what else do you do?
CT: I write plays, film scripts. There is one currently on the production desks now. A film about the Mossad, Israeli Secret Service, I wrote it together with Adam Goldstein, a British writer. It should be announced very soon!
RJ: “Jordan River Village” is your new baby. When and how was it conceived?
CT: My mentor, Paul Newman, inspired me. He built a village – the Americans call it a camp, but we don’t like that word, so we call it village. It is a place that offers children with incurable illnesses a memorable week at no cost to their families.
Jordan River Village was founded in lower Galilee, in 2000. It serves children who suffer from terminal illnesses, of all religions and backgrounds. It opened 4 years ago, and it is running very successfully. We belong to the organisation Paul established. There are six more of these in the US, six in Europe. In the village in Galilee, we work all year round and all the doctors and nurses are volunteers. There are 110 people working there, but we only pay 15 salaries. It is very unusual, and we are very proud of this.
RJ: Who decides which children come?
CT: Doctors and social workers recommend the children. The village is beautiful. There is a medical centre, and so the village is recognised as a hospital. We don’t call it that, it’s nicer that it is a village. There is a large dining room, an arts centre, swimming pool, sports centre with a climbing wall and a zip line, a theatre, stables and a petting zoo.
RJ: What sorts of illnesses are treated?
CT: Cancer is the most obvious one. But there are more unusual ones. For example, juvenile diabetes. Each week is dedicated to a different illness, so that we can bring in the right specialists. They are treated, but we also bring entertainment to them- plays, orchestras. Everything really. It is very, very important to me.
RJ: Thank you for sharing your experiences.