Chaim Topol, who became professionally known solely by his last name in a career that included starring in “Fiddler on the Roof” on stage and screen and co-starring in the James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only” and the campy sci-fi film “Flash Gordon,” died Thursday in Tel Aviv after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 87 years old.
Topol’s death was confirmed by Israel’s president Isaac Herzog, who described him as a “gifted actor who conquered many stages in Israel and overseas, filled the cinema screens with his presence and especially entered deep into our hearts.”
Topol began his long association with the starring role of Tevye the milkman in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” by appearing, starting in February 1967, in the West End production, which ran for 2,030 performances. He starred in Norman Jewison’s 1971 film version, whose budget was an estimated $9 million and whose domestic gross was $80 million. The movie was nominated for eight Oscars, including best picture and best actor for Topol, and it won for its cinematography, sound and music.
A Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1990-91 (there have since been others) won the Tony for best revival of a musical, and Topol was nominated for best actor in a musical.
He had earlier reprised the role of Tevye in a 1983 London revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and he played the role in a touring U.S. production in the late 1980s. After the 1990 Broadway revival, he played the part in a 1994 London revival, which became a touring production. He then played Tevye in various productions in Europe, Australia and Japan.
In 1980 he starred as Dr. Hans Zarkov in “Flash Gordon,” whose football player title character was played by Sam J. Jones; Max von Sydow played the villainous Emperor Ming. Timothy Dalton and Brian Blessed were also in the cast of the Mike Hodges film, which was strictly high camp, complete with a soundtrack from the band Queen.
The following year Topol appeared in the Roger Moore 007 entry “For Your Eyes Only,” playing Greek smuggler Columbo, who is able to muster forces to aid James Bond in defeating Julian Glover’s villain Kristatos.
The 1980s continued to be good for Topol as he was cast as Berel Jastrow, one of the main characters in ABC’s huge miniseries based on the books by Herman Wouk, “The Winds of War” (1983) and “War and Remembrance” (1988-89). In between he appeared in an Israeli film, Oded Kotler’s “Roman Behemshechim” (1985) and the soapy miniseries “Queenie” (1987), a fictionalized treatment of the life of actress Merle Oberon with a starry cast including Kirk Douglas, Claire Bloom and Joel Grey.
Topol’s last feature credit was the Jeroen Krabbé-directed 1998 film “Left Luggage.”
The actor first became known to American audiences in the 1964 movie “Sallah,” directed by Ephraim Kishon and released in the U.S. in Hebrew with English subtitles, which was Oscar nominated for best foreign-language film, while Topol was named most promising newcomer – male at the Golden Globes. It also drew a review from the New York Times: “As a comedy, ‘Sallah’ is a rarity in the annals of the tiny Israeli movie colony, but this gentle saga of an unlettered Oriental Jew’s successful campaign against entrenched bureaucracy and the 20th century is more educational than hilarious. Sallah Shabbati and his coterie are an unusual, endearing, often colorful lot, but their humor is largely rudimentary.”
(Excerpt) Read more in: Variety