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Theodore Bikel has 'no intention' of retiring

TORONTO - On the heels of 82-year-old Canadian star Christopher Plummer's second Oscar nomination and the milestone birthdays of actors Betty White (90) and Ernest Borgnine (95), comes another reminder the octo- and nonagenarian set are thriving in show business these days.

TORONTO - On the heels of 82-year-old Canadian star Christopher Plummer's second Oscar nomination and the milestone birthdays of actors Betty White (90) and Ernest Borgnine (95), comes another reminder the octo- and nonagenarian set are thriving in show business these days.

Theodore Bikel, the 87-year-old acting legend who's been nominated for a Tony Award and an Oscar, is in Toronto to perform in "Visiting Mr. Green," opening Saturday at the Jane Mallett Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.

It's just the latest in a seemingly never-ending line of projects for the Los Angeles-based actor/singer/musican, who's played Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof" more times than any other actor and plans to reprise the role in China next year.

"Somebody asked me whether I'm thinking of retiring, and I have absolutely no intention of doing that," a genial, bearded Bikel said in a recent interview at the theatre.

"Retiring contains within the word, the notion of, tiring, and I'm not tiring. I'm not tired."

Bikel's rosy outlook is a stark contrast to that of his titular character in Jeff Baron's comedy "Visiting Mr. Green," making its Toronto premiere as a presentation by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company.

Despondent after the death of his wife, Mr. Green can't fend for himself and is ready to give up on life.

"He can't function without her," said the Vienna-born Bikel, who got an Oscar nomination for playing a sheriff in "The Defiant Ones" and was up for a Tony for originating the role of Capt. Von Trapp in "The Sound of Music" on Broadway.

"They'd been married for almost 60 years. He doesn't know how to clean, he doesn't cook, he has no interest anymore in life."

Circumstances change, though, when a young, gay corporate executive (Aidan deSalaiz) nearly smacks his car into Mr. Green and is ordered by a judge to visit him on a weekly basis.

"They're both, in a sense, lost souls who are in desperate need of doing something about their own loneliness," said Bikel.

"They don't know that they need to do something about the loneliness — they're prepared to just veg along with it — but they find out that they can only get some kind of healing through each other."

Bikel has performed in Toronto many times, with productions including "Fiddler," "Zorba" and his play "Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears," for which he won a 2010 Drama Desk Award.

When he takes on such demanding roles these days, "Usually audiences will compliment you on the fact that you remember all those words," chuckled Bikel, president of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America.

"I said, 'To compliment an actor on the fact that he has all these words under his belt is like telling an architect that they admire him because he has bricks to work with. You have to build a building from bricks!"

Bikel's other well-known credits include the films "My Fair Lady" and "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming," and the stage shows "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "The Lark," in which he co-starred with Plummer, his former neighbour in Connecticut.

"He never came around to ask for a cup of sugar," Bikel said with a laugh as he recalled the days he lived "around the corner" from Plummer.

Of course, Bikel and Plummer also had Capt. Von Trapp in common, with the latter playing the role in "The Sound of Music" 1965 film.

Plummer has famously referred to the film as "The Sound of Mucous," and Bikel said he found fault with original the Broadway production, noting "it had no bite to it" because it came at a time when musicals were seen more as comedies than dramas.

"When we tried out the play in New Haven and Boston, there were swastikas and there were flags and there was 'Heil Hitler' and all of that," he recalled. "By the time we got to Broadway, the arm bands were gone, the 'Heil Hitler' turned into 'Heil.'

"It was all softened around the edges, which offended me because I was in Austria as a boy, a 14-year-old boy who had to flee from the Nazis, and I remember only too well what it was like."

Bikel said he felt "that history was being twisted to a place where it's being misrepresented" and that the production "didn't get that terrible sense of danger."

Still, he did return to the show, starring in two short summer touring revivals.

Bikel also attended a 50th anniversary celebration of "The Sound of Music" in New York in 2009. He was only one of three actors from the original production who were there, which was "sad," said Bikel.

"They're all dying out," he said of his co-stars from many of his acclaimed projects. "It's absolutely true."

That mournful reality hit him hard when he attended a gala opening of a refurbished version of the film "My Fair Lady" at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York.

"I said to myself, '"My Fair Lady" — I'm in this movie for all of 14 minutes ... why are they asking me to introduce the film?

"I suddenly realized, in shock, I was the only surviving member of the cast. The only one. There was nobody else who was alive. And that happens."

Bikel added with a laugh: "They ask me to meet people from those plays, films that I've done and I'm getting hard-pressed to meet them. I meet their children."