Chaim Topol, an Israeli actor best known for his role as Tevye in the film version of Fiddler on the Roof, died Thursday at age 87 in Tel Aviv after a multi-year battle with Alzheimer’s.
Topol had a wide range of credits, but will always be known for the central character of Tevye — first in stage productions, then later in the film. He later returned to the stage with the role.
Born in Tel Aviv in 1935, Topol began his acting career while completing his IDF service in the army’s entertainment troupe, where he met his wife, Galia. After that, he joined a theater group, appearing in multiple productions before his first film role, the 1961 drama I Like Mike.
But it was his 1964 role in the film Sallah Shabati that first gained Topol serious attention, both domestically and internationally. Topol played the title role in the now-iconic film about the hardships of a Mizrahi immigrant family living in a transit camp.
The film became a smash hit locally, won best foreign film at the Golden Globes and became Israel’s first nomination for an Oscar in the international film category. A year later, Topol was cast in a small role in the 1966 big-budget US production, Cast a Giant Shadow.
He had been playing Tevye in the Hebrew version of “Fiddler” in Israel when he landed the same role in a British theater production. He first appeared in 1967 and did several hundred shows as Tevye.
Director Norman Jewison saw one of the performances and decided Topol was right for the film version. He cast him in the 1971 adaptation, which was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Topol.
Topol starred in several dozen more films in Israel and the US, including a role in the 1981 Bond film, For Your Eyes Only. He also played scientist Galileo Galilei in the 1975 film Galileo, and was in the 1980 film Flash Gordon.
But as he later revealed, he played Tevye in more than 3,500 productions.
He is survived by his wife, Galia, of 67 years, along with his three children and several grandchildren.