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Theodore Bikel was a highly intelligent, enormously talented man who probably would have been a success in a dozen different professions. He chose acting, and soon branched out into singing.

I met him in 1962, and he was one of the few successful film actors who had kind words for television, and no wonder, he came along during what it called TV’s “golden age” in the 1950s, and had roles in such anthology series as “Armstrong Circle Theatre” (1955), “The Alcoa Hour” (1956), “Goodyear Playhouse” (1955-56), “The United States Steel Hour” (1955-56), “Studio One”(1955-57), and “Playhouse 90.”

He’d also been in such films as “The African Queen” (1951), “Moulin Rouge” (1952). “Above Us the Waves” (1955), “The Enemy Below,” (1957), and “The Defiant Ones” (1958), in which he played a Southern sheriff.

He was in Cleveland for an episode of “Route 66,” an unusual television series that filmed on locations around the country, giving it a look unlike any other program then being made.

Akron Beacon Journal, November 18, 1962
Theodore Bikel is a man with a hundred personalities and two careers.

He as born in Austria of Russian-Jewish parents, spent most of his childhood in Israel (then Palestine), scored his initial success in England, then came to the United States where he has become one of the world’s best-known actors.

He didn’t begin to speak English until he was 15, yet his Southern drawl was convincing enough to win an Academy Award nomination four years ago when he played a sheriff in “The Defiant Ones.”

Bikel, 38, is a stocky six-footer, but he speaks slowly and quietly off-stage. There seems to be a trace of an accent in his voice, but I found that accent impossible to pinpoint. After all, the man speaks six languages fluently and can sing in 13 others. He is in constant demand for movie, TV and stage roles, but he makes sure to set time aside for that second career — singing.

Bikel taught himself to play the guitar several years ago.

“It’s an easy instrument to play well enough not to offend anyone,” he said, “but a difficult instrument to play exceptionally well. I guess I just don’t offend anyone.”
Bikel had always sung for his friends’ amusement, but never had a desire to do it professionally until he was approached by a record company four years ago.

“The first album was an experiment,” he recalled. “We didn’t know what to expect.”

But that “experiment” took off and landed on the best-seller charts. He’s record five more albums and has packed auditoriums whenever he’s done a concert.

Bikel’s specialty is folk singing, and he picks up songs wherever he goes.

“I was in Greece last year and spent some time with people learning their native songs. It’s like that every place I go.”
He takes some of the credit for the folk-singing craze that hit this country a few years ago.

“Did you know that more money was spent on guitars last year than for pianos? It’s the first time in history that has happened,” he said.

Bikel also was a success in his first singing role on stage, spending two years on Broadway in “The Sound of Music.”

He was in Cleveland recently to film an episode of “Route 66.”

“I like working on television,” he said, “but, of course, I’m in a better position than people who do it every week. I don’t envy them. Sometimes they have to worry just about getting a show done on time.

“Me? I can sit back and choose my parts. And don’t let anyone kid you — there are a lot of good parts on television. Some of the programs are excellent. In fact, it’s easier to get a good part on TV than it is in the movies, simply because they aren’t making many movies these days.

“I was lucky on the ‘Route 66’ show. I saw the entire script before I began shooting. Many times in TV, the actor can’t get a look at the finished script until the how starts filming. By that time, the girl you thought was playing your wife may be re-written to be your daughter.”

Bulk agreed the bulk of television may be mediocre, but claimed several video productions are as good as good movies.
In addition to “Route 66,” Bikel can be seen in at least two other shows this season — “Wagon Train” and “The Dick Powell Theater.”

Bikel described the “Route 66” assignment as “the most physically demanding of my career.”

That was due to both the running required and the shooting conditions. The unusually heavy September rains made the running tough, and the actor admitted he’s not much of a mudder.

“The director didn’t mind,” Bikel said, smiling. “The script called for rain.”

One scene had Bikel running from a barn, his coat in flames. A stunt double was used for part of the scene, “but my jacket was on fire for the close ups.”

Another scene was filmed in a cramped motel room.

“In movies, we would have done it on a large set, but here we all squeezed into a tiny space. The bright lights and the heat made it one of the most unpleasant scenes I’ve ever done.”

Bikel said the “Route 66” crew has one advantage over those who work on other shows.

“They shoot with the conditions, including the weather. I did a Dick Powell show lat season, and it was just the opposite. We began filming early in the morning when it was chilly and crisp outside, and we were supposed to be in the tropics. All the time we were ‘sweating’ from the heat, you could see our breath every time we spoke our lines. We had to wait until mid-afternoon to re-shoot the scenes.

“I’ve done other shows where I was supposed to be shivering, and you could see beads of sweat on our foreheads.”

There are some things you can’t control now matter how agreeable the weather might be.

“Like when you work with animals,” Bikel explained. “When I did ‘The Defiant Ones,’ we stood for three hours in a swamp waiting for some bloodhounds to sniff in the right direction. The dogs behaved perfectly in rehearsals, but they were miserable when it came to the actual shooting.”

Bikel was reluctant to take that role in “The Defiant Ones.”

“I didn’t think I could be convincing at a Southerner, but Stanley Kramer (the producer-director) talked me into it. For weeks I talked to no one by Southerners. I even went out with women just because they had that Southern drawl.”

Bikel was satisfied with his performance.

“Now I think I can be as British as the British, as Scottish as a Scot, and as American as an American.”

Bikel continued to have a varied career, which also included starring as Captain Von Trapp opposite Mary Martin in "The Sound of Music" and performing the role of Tevye on stage in "Fiddler on the Roof."

On the big screen he played the Russian submarine commander in the hit comedy, "The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!" in 1966. He continued to do concerns and perform in television series, including playing one of the murderers outfoxed by Peter Falk on "Columbo," when he appeared as a member of a MENSA-like society in an episode entitled "The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case" in 1977. Bikel himself was a member of MENSA.

He died in Los Angeles in 2015. He was 91 years old. He was married four times, includidn g a 41-year union with Rita Weinberg Call, mother of his two children.

 
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