Here’s to Theodore Bikel, a burly Austrian-Jewish character actor with a large heart and probing mind. By my criteria he nailed it in at least two films — as a World War I-era German Naval lieutenant in John Huston‘s The African Queen (’51), and as a laid-back, good old boy Sheriff chasin’ after Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in Stanley Kramer‘s The Defiant Ones (’58). I never met him but Bikel was a fellow Wiltonian who used to have a sizable place on Honey Hill Road. An earthy fellow, good humored, married four times. He passed yesterday at age 91.
Bikel started out as an actor but then got into the ethnic folk music thing in the’50s, and he was right there at the ’65 Newport Folk Festival when Dylan went electric [see video above]. In folk music circles Bikel was regarded as an old guard lefty and even a bit of a conservative by mid’ 60s standards…union guy, the “Wobblies“, a baggy-pants roustabout, part of the Alan Lomax realm. But he and Peter Yarrow were cool with Dylan after the booing started, both suggesting that he go back out and do an acoustic set. (And he did.)
Wiki boilerplate: “Bikel was born into a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria. His father named him after Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. Following the German union with Austria in 1938, Bikel’s family fled to Palestine, where his father’s contacts helped the family obtain British passports. Bikel studied at the Mikve Yisrael agricultural school and joined Kibbutz Kfar HaMaccabi.”
Wiki #2: “Bikel started acting while in his teens. He performed with Habimah Theater and was one of the founding members of the Cameri Theatre, which became a leading Israeli theater company. In 1945, he moved to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Bikel moved to the United States in 1954, and became a naturalized citizen in 1961.”
Wiki #3: “He was president of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America and was president of Actors’ Equity in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He served as the Chair of the Board of Directors of Partners for Progressive Israel, where he also lectured. His autobiography, ‘Theo‘, first published in 1995, has been reprinted and updated three times.”