For nearly six decades, Theodore Bikel has graced the stage and screen, distinguishing himself as a respected character actor.

Now the 85-year-old will be making a five-day stop in Edmonton, starring in a tour of the beloved musical Fiddler on the Roof.

The story of Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman in Tsarist Russia at turn of the 20th century who must attempt to maintain his family and religious traditions in the face of outside influences and discrimination, first opened on Broadway in 1964 and stands as the 14th-longest-running show in Broadway history.

“When a piece is good, when the quality is high, it becomes universal,” Bikel said, explaining the show’s longevity. “It is so good that it becomes universally accepted, universally loved, universally understood.”

Although Bikel didn’t originate the role of Tevye, he has played him in nearly 2,100 performances. Bikel has played the milkman more times than any other actor in the show’s history.

Born in Vienna in 1924 to Jewish parents, his family fled to Palestine upon Nazi occupation in Austria.

 

As a young man, he moved to London and studied at the famed Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he was introduced to Laurence Olivier. Impressed with Bikel’s talent, Olivier put Bikel in his stage production of Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire starring Vivien Leigh. Bikel would go on to originate the role of Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music.

In 1958, Bikel received an Academy Award nomination for his supporting role in Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones, playing the Southern Sheriff hunting down Tony Curtis and Sydney Poitier’s criminals on the run.

Even though Bikel is well into his 80s, he has no intentions of retiring.

“I am among those that don’t believe in retirement. Retire to what? I know what I am capable of doing and I’m doing it,” Bikel said. “Retire to a wheelchair, or a rocking chair? Ridiculous.”

Fiddler on the Roof plays at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium from Jan. 19 to Jan. 24.