As hit film ‘Fiddler On The Roof’ turns 50, celebrate with the original cast

London Jewish News — When the film adaptation of “Fiddler on the Roof” opened, revered critic Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and said director Norman Jewison “has made as good a film as can be made from the material.” Ebert, now deceased, thought the storyline was “quite simply boring,” which denigrated the work of its original author, Sholem Aleichem — and raised doubts about Ebert’s Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

With global acclaim from almost all other reviewers, three Oscars, multiple nominations (including Best Actor for Chaim Topol) and a cumulative $83.3 million at the box office, the enduring appeal of this movie is irrefutable.

From the first sunlit sighting of the fiddler (Tutte Lemkow) to Reb Tevye’s last look in the frozen finale, the audience is transported to the Russia of the czars and a people under siege. Theaters, of course, always want a revival of composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick’s celebratory tragedy but, on stage, the shtetl is just scenery. In the film, it has a beating heart.

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And now, as this magical movie reaches its 50th anniversary, there is news of a remake. With MGM’s funding, “Hamilton” director Thomas Kail is fulfilling a lifelong dream and revisiting Anatevka. Although plans for his Fiddler screen revamp are yet to be revealed, the social media tag “Leave #FiddlerOnTheRoof alone!” comes from devotees who believe the 1971 film is sacred. It certainly is for the cast, many of whom were making their first film when they arrived in London on May 18, 1970, to begin rehearsals.

At that point, Jewison’s transatlantic search for suitable Hodels, Motels and Shprintzes was over and his chosen cast was sleeping off jet lag at the Mayfair Hotel. Interestingly, Jewison’s own suitability for the job was his biggest worry, as the president of United Artists, Arthur Krim, had made the wrong assumption about his name.

There is one enormous problem with me directing the film. What would you say if I told you I was a goy?

As Jewison recalls telling him: “There is one enormous problem with me directing the film. What would you say if I told you I was a goy?”

The room fell silent, but with such credits as “In the Heat of the Night” and “The Cincinnati Kid,” a difference of faith did not deter Krim, who replied: “Why do you think we asked you to make the film?”

Asserting his authority, Jewison, who is now 94, resisted casting Broadway favorite Zero Mostel as Tevye and instead chose Tel Aviv-born Chaim Topol.

“He was closer to the reality of the character,” says Jewison, appearing as his younger self in Max Lewkowicz’s unmissable documentary, “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles.”

Sheldon Harnick playing the violin in ‘Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles.’ (Courtesy Pacific Northwest Pictures)

The 1971 film is just part of Lewkowicz’s vibrant history of the creation and cultural significance of the 1964 musical but, as a fan of the movie, he returns repeatedly to Topol’s iconic interpretation.

“My father says he based Tevye’s inner strength and straight-talking on his own father,” says Topol’s oldest daughter, Anat, who lives in Los Angeles. “But it was Shmuel Rodensky, Israel’s Laurence Olivier and a veteran Tevye, who taught him the most, as he told dad not to play the comedy too strongly in the first act as you lose the drama in the second act.”

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Originally divided by an interval, the second act brings only tragedy for Tevye, who faces the loss of his home to tsarist persecution and his two daughters to a new world. Indeed, it is Hodel’s farewell to “Far from the Home I Love” that moved Topol most. “She doesn’t speak, she just sings the song, and he understands every single feeling that she has. And he knows he won’t see her anymore.”

As the film’s emotional fulcrum, Topol’s portrayal of the pious milkman
has led people to ask about his real persona. “He doesn’t act, but lives the part and you can actually see his heart breaking,” says his youngest daughter, Adi, who played Chava with him at the Palladium in 1994.

“In the show, he shouted at me every night because of my marriage to Fyedka and, every night, I cried. I then had to run around the back of the stage and reappear to do the cute little bird dance. I was still crying. It wasn’t a fun scene and he always hugged me afterward. He needed that hug just as much as me. So when people ask if there’s a lot of Tevye in my father, we tell them it’s Tevye who has my father in him,” says Adi.

Baron Edmond de Rothchild organized a gala at the Paris Opera for the benefit of Jewish charity organizations and the film ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ was presented for the first time in Paris on December 1, 1971. From Left to Right are: Producer Norman Jewison, Haim Topol and his wife listening to violinist Pali Gesztros and his orchestra. (AP Photo)

Tzeitel’s Tale

Rosalind Harris has Bette Midler to thank for landing the role of Tzeitel. The Divine Miss M (still yet to emerge) was playing the oldest sister in the 1967 Broadway production and Roz was her reluctant understudy.

“She would kid with me and say ‘I think I’m gonna miss a show,’ which I didn’t want as I was scared,” says Harris.

Self-conscious about her Semitic nose until Streisand gave it charm, Harris got her turn when Bette took a break and her Tzeitel was an obvious choice for the film. Except she couldn’t get an audition. Every Jewish girl who could hold a note knew Jewison was in New York for castings and Harris wasn’t pushy.

Rosalind Harris as Tzeitel in ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ (screenshot)

“I was also wary of stepping on Bette’s toes until she approached me backstage to ask if I’d auditioned and when I told her ‘No,’ she didn’t hesitate. ‘Roz, they don’t want me. Get your ass down there,’” says Harris.

At the age of 75, the story still tickles Harris, who took her advice and blew away casting director Lynn Stalmaster with an audition that had him calling for Jewison. “’Get him here now,’ he shouted’ and I was soon running around the room singing all three parts of Matchmaker for him.”

Harris remembers everything, even being naked in her kitchen when Stalmaster called to offer her the part. “My sister came over and we screamed and hugged for half an hour before I left for the theater with laryngitis.”

Emotions were still running high when the 24-year-old screen newbie arrived at the film’s location in Zagreb with a broken heart.

“The love of my life had left me,” she says and although grief infused her performance, it did not spoil the fun with her co-stars.

“Michele, Neva and I decided to experience being European and go natural —  as in not shave. It was 1970 and we wanted to try it, but ‘Fiddler’ is set at the turn of the century, so when we threw up our arms during ‘Matchmaker,’ Norman stopped the cameras. ‘What the hell is that forest under your arms? Get back to the hotel and shave your pits.’”

Tevye’s three oldest daughters in ‘Fiddler on the roof.’ (screenshot)

Tevye’s daughters were also too fond of the cafeteria doughnuts, with Harris always head of the queue filling her apron pockets. “Until Norman stopped us and said we were a bunch of porkers, then shut down filming for a week and put us on a diet.”

Harris’s many tales include an instant connection with screen spouse Motel (Oscar winner Leonard Frey), who was “just my type, but gay,” but the real corker is that her actress sister Lenore married the butcher Lazar Wolf in real life. “Yes, Paul Mann was my late brother-in-law and he was a tremendous actor who also taught drama. Sidney Poitier was his student as well as me and my sister. I persuaded him to let me take photos at their wedding because he didn’t want any,” says Harris, who still loves the pics and would have “married” him too, had it not been for Grandma Tzeitel dropping by in Tevye’s dream.

‘Far From Home’ Hodel

In the garage of her home in Idyllwild, California, Michele Marsh has a box marked “evacuation.” There is nothing unusual about this, as residents are prepared for wildfires hitting the region. Few, however, would consider a box of 1971 film memorabilia a rescue priority.

Not Fiddler fans. They would be fascinated by Michele’s collection of reviews, cuttings, photos and call sheets from her first film – and she’s not leaving without them. Years before she was cast as Hodel, Michele appeared as Beilke, one of the younger daughters in Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye, at a theatre in Carmel.

“When I heard the play had been turned into a musical, I was horrified,” she says, not realising she would one day star in it with her future husband.

Hodel, played by Michele Marsh, in ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ (screenshot)

“That was Joel Rudnick, the nice Jewish boy I met when I was in San Francisco studying at the American Conservatory Theatre. We’d broken up by the time I got a part in “Oh! Calcutta!” in LA, but he still drove me there to live with his aunt.”

It was the aunt who advised Marsh to sneak into Samuel Goldwyn Studios and deliver her resume to Norman Jewison’s office to secure an audition. “But when they asked me to prepare two songs for the next day, I had to run and buy the album as I’d never seen the show.”

Looking back, she still can’t believe that John Williams, the film’s musical director, was on piano at her audition or that being in the racy revue “Oh! Calcutta!” didn’t stop her from being cast as an Orthodox farm girl.

“Plus I’m not Jewish, so when I got the part I was so afraid they were going to change their mind I bought books on Jewish mysticism and tried to educate myself.”

I bought books on Jewish mysticism and tried to educate myself

By then reunited with Joel, he joined her in Zagreb, where it was filmed, and got a part in the movie.

“I asked if he could be in it and they said he could if he grew a beard and got a tan. You can spot him with the rabbi in the synagogue and holding the chuppah at the wedding.”

After shooting interiors at Pinewood Studios, only Marsh, Topol, Norma Crane (Golda) and Jewison returned to Zagreb to film Hodel’s snowy exit. “They were having an Indian summer, so we waited 10 days before shipping in marble dust to pass as snow. They blocked out the sun with the steam train that takes Hodel away.”

Marsh’s hoard of nostalgia is a physical reminder of that and so many other scenes performed by departed cast members, such as Leonard Frey (Motel), Ray Lovelock (Fyedka) and Norma Crane.

“She was diagnosed with breast cancer weeks before filming, but we didn’t know. When we had days off, Joel and I went with her to Venice, which was lovely, and after the film, I visited her at home.

“She was 44 when she died, two years after Fiddler’s release, but when we finished filming she sent me this note: ‘I may have played your mother, but you are my dear friend… We’ll be friends forever.’”

Little Chava

Neva Small was always going to be a performer. What else could she be, living a stone’s throw from Broadway with a mother who played harp in an all-female orchestra and Leonard Bernstein in the guest room?

“He was the son of my dad’s best friend,” she explains. “What can I say? It’s an interesting family and, once they discovered I could sing, I was auditioning for jobs and playing the daughter of the star soprano at New York City Opera by the age of 10.”

Starting young meant Small had already worked with the Fiddler casting director, but there was no fast track past the five auditions and screen tests.

“I guess my singing was special enough that John Williams noticed. And then to work with Norman Jewison, who directed TV specials with Doris Day and Andy Williams.”

Neva Small as ‘Chava’ in ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ (screenshot)

Clearly in awe of the head honcho, Small was young enough to play “everybody’s favorite child” Chava and turned 18 on location.

“At the hotel, my neighbors were Molly Picon (Yente) and her wonderful husband Jacob, who was also in the film. Molly was a child star in Yiddish theatre, so it was special to be next door to them for so many months.”

Describing the crew as icons, Small mentions cinematographer Oswald Morris and production designer Robert Boyle, who scoured Eastern Europe with a tape recorder playing Fiddler tunes in remote villages to gauge their suitability.

“In the end, they built the shtetl in Zagreb according to Oswald’s plans and he won the Oscar,” informs Small, who is always a guest star at Fiddler events and recently joined Rosalind Harris on the album for Joel Grey’s Yiddish production.

Steven Skybell as Tevye and the ensemble sing ‘Tradition’ during the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ (Victor Nechay/

“We sang ‘To Marry for Love,’ which was cut from the original show and replaced with ‘Matchmaker,’ which was better,” says Small.

That’s the sort of trivia fans like at the singalong screenings, where they share stories about seeing the film with their grandmother or the character they played in high school. “I just stand there and kvell,” says Small.

Tevye’s Real Children

In 1967, Anat Topol-Barzilai, then nine, took her four-year-old brother, Omer, to see “Fiddler on the Roof” at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London every Saturday afternoon. “We certainly knew it word for word,” says Anat, who has lived in America for 35 years. “We sat on our own for three hours, had an ice cream during intermission and, at the end, went backstage to see Dad.”

In this Wednesday, April 8, 2015 photo, Israeli actor Chaim Topol speaks during an interview, in Tel Aviv, Israel. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Chaim Topol was only 30 when producer Hal Prince spotted him in the Israeli film “Sallah Shabati” and thought he was perfect to play the mature milkman in the London production. Younger than expected and not yet fluent in English when he arrived, the father of three told Prince that “a good actor can play an old man, a sad face, a happy man. Make-up is not an obstacle,” and went on to get rave reviews as Topol, the new star.

“The English producers could not pronounce the consonant ‘chet’ at the beginning of his first name [Chaim], so they stuck with his last,” explains younger daughter Adi, who was 18 months old when the family relocated to the UK. “I was at home with mum [Galia Finkelstein, whom he married in 1956] while Anat and Omer were on the underground alone.”

“We didn’t go on the Tube, but we were independent,” corrects Anat, formerly an actress best known for the Israeli film “Banot” (Girls), but is now a nurse in a veteran’s hospital. “While I was studying, another student nurse from Nigeria went crazy when she discovered my dad was Topol. Fiddler was her mum’s favorite and she grew up on the film.

“When I went for a blood test, the Brazilian nurse spotted the surname and said: ‘Topol? Like the guy in the movie? I’m so into that culture,’ which made me laugh as I never think of it that way.”

Still from the 1971 Norman Jewison film production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ (United Artists/The Kobal Collection)

During the London run, Topol was called up for reserve duty in the Six-Day War in Israel, but returned for more performances before Norman Jewison offered him the role that Rod Steiger, Danny Kaye, Walter Matthau and even Frank Sinatra wanted.

“But he got it and we all went to Yugoslavia to live in a gorgeous house and, for the entire school summer break, pretty much lived on the set,” recalls Anat, who, along with Omer appear in the film as Yente’s future shidduchs.

“I fell in love with the farmyard animals – a goat I think,” chuckles Adi, who runs Overtone UK recording studios in London with her musician husband, Dror Margalith. “When my father met Dror, he looked at him then looked at me and said: ‘But he’s normal!’ He had low expectations.”

Anat laughs: “Yes, but when I took my Irish Catholic boyfriend to Fiddler rehearsals in London, Dad did the ‘fish may love a bird’ speech straight to us, which wasn’t subtle. But he is direct, and when Omer finished the army and wanted to study medicine to become an underwater paramedic, my father said: ‘But what are we going to talk about?’”

Tevye’s daughters in ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ (screenshot)

Memories of the Zagreb set include hanging out with Norman Jewison’s kids and sitting on the back of the milk cart with the cameraman while Topol pulled it along.

“It was great fun for six months until winter and then they relocated to Pinewood where we visited less, but I was there when they shot the dream sequence, which terrified me,” says Adi.

“But we were always well-behaved,” adds Anat. “Our parents made sure of it, so we didn’t get in the way and as we grew up they were very hands-off about our decisions in life. My eldest son recently described our father as the ultimate dad because of Tevye,” Adi smiles. “And I know exactly what he means.”

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