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An Autobiography

Theodore Bikel

Publication Year: 2002

An award-winning actor on screen and stage (The Defiant Ones, The African Queen, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof), an activist for civil rights and progressive causes worldwide, and a singer whose voice has won him great applause, Theodore Bikel here tells his own compelling life story. Born in Austria, raised in Palestine, educated in England, and with a stellar career in the United States and around the world, Bikel offers a personal history parallel to momentous events of the twentieth century. In an eloquent, fiercely committed voice, he writes of the Third Reich, the birth of the State of Israel, the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s, and the tumultuous 1960s in America. In a new postscript to this paperback edition, he looks at recent events in the Middle East and takes both sides to task for their excesses.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

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pp. vii-viii

Writing about one’s own life is surely one of the more dangerous undertakings. Remembrance has an infernal habit of slipping into misremembrance; actuality and dreams become entangled; and fiction often enough repeated turns into an assertion of fact. Theatre people are especially vulnerable to such temptations; most careers as told and retold to press and public are given a cosmetic layer…

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1: Flashback

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pp. 1-21

IT IS A FINE DAY IN THE SPRING OF '92. I am arriving at the Picogate of the 20th Century Fox studio, as I have done many times over the years. Normally the feeling of reporting for work on a new show is one of pleasant anticipation; today, not quite so. Of course, simply driving through the gate at 20th Century Fox is apt to trigger mind games, most often pleasant, occasionally strange, but rarely disturbing...

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2: Hebrew Theatre

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pp. 22-36

I CANNOT SAY THAT MY PARENTS WERE overjoyed at my decision to leave the kibbutz and follow a career in which the chances of success were so slim. Still, to their credit, it must be said that they did not entirely close the door on my ambitions. The only condition my father attached to giving me permission--and money--was that I pass my university exams, "just in case things don't work out." On this point he was insistent. As it happened, this was a wise decision, not because...

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3: …Trippingly on the Tongue

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pp. 37-55

My excitement about being in London was not marred by the fact that it is essentially a city of unrelieved gray--even on its brighter and sunnier days, few enough in number, it looks bleak. It does not feel bleak, however. The dead things are not really dead, the past is there as more than a memorial. London Bridge, Beefeaters, the Tower--you can drive on the bridge, talk to the beefeaters, smell the musty odor of...

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4: The Kindness of Strangers

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pp. 56-72

I'd been in England close to three years, and the ups and downs of a struggling actor's career had begun to take their toll. I was nowhere near defeat, but I had started to wonder whether all this would lead to any more than just the taste of world theatre. Perhaps the training at RADA and on the British stage was no more than preparation for an...

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5: The Guitars of the Exile

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pp. 73-92

THE EARLY 1950s WERE A GLORIOUS TIME for me in England. The theatre was home and family, the music at all times a source of incredible pleasure, and I began to be paid an actual living wage for what I enjoyed doing most! Beyond that, I went to parties practically every night, made friends, and made carefree love (one could make...

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6: East End, West End, and the Palace

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pp. 93-112

AT THE END OF THE DECADE, IN 1949, my career took another big step forward. I was cast in yet another long theatre engagement-- the result of a party, which gives the lie to the often-repeated warning by veteran show folk that social occasions never lead to professional advancement. For the life of me, I cannot remember whose party it was, or why it was given. I do remember very well that this...

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7: How Much Does He Want?

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pp. 113-133

Somehow I had entertained the notion that Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart would be prototypical American superstars. How wrong I was! Neither of them was remotely like the kings and queens of filmdom whom I met and worked with later in my career. Bogie had a rough exterior that some people found downright intimidating. He tended to be vocal in his opinions, but he carried on...

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8: America—Love at First Sight

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pp. 134-151

IF A LULLABY IS A SONG THAT PUTS YOU to sleep, then there is no such thing as a lullaby of Broadway. It was a small culture shock to arrive from the staid and stolid life of Britain and face New York's nervous energy. Right off the bat, it was clear that I would never think or behave like a tourist or permit myself to be treated as one. New York itself helps you do that: Even the unfamliliar in New York is...

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9: Folk Lure

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pp. 152-183

IN ENGLAND I HAD CULTIVATED AND CHERISHED my contact with other folksingers. In America there was so much nlore folk music--a veritable feast. When I arrived in December 1954, the Weavers were still blacklisted, no new records of theirs were available, and their public performances had dwindled in number. But individual concerts were sponsored by organizations that did not give a damn about witch-hunts...

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10: Peregrinations [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 184-203

IT WAS EVIDENT TO ME THAT AMERICAN AUDIENCES love talent, love performers, even make a fetish of some of them. There are no kings and no aristocrats in America; Americans find their royalty elsewhere--among the wealthy, the powerful, and the talented. Tycoons and others who walk the halls of power are essentially out of reach. Performers, on the other hand, are familiar faces on the stages and...

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11: The Hills Are Alive

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pp. 204-218

By 1959, MY FIFTH YEAR IN THE UNITED STATES, I had covered some distances--artistic, emotional, and geographical. I had done well in the theatre, in television, in movies, and I was considered one of the mainstays of the folk scene, the prime exponent of international folk songs. What next? In the summer of '59 I went to Holland and Belgium to work on a film entitled The Dog of Flanders, a nice family type...

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12: Union Dues

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pp. 219-248

DURING THE FIRST YEAR OF The Sound of Music, 1960, the Actors' Equity collective-bargaining agreement with the League of New York Theatres ran out, and the negotiations for a new contract were not going well. Although at the time I was not involved with any union matters, I was aware that the situation might impact on all of us working under Broadway or touring contracts at the time...

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13: Come, Let Us Reason Together

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pp. 249-266

IT SEEMS THAT I HAVE CONDUCTED MY LIFE on two different emotional planes: one lighthearted, gregarious, even frivolous; the other politically and socially involved and following a serious social and moral commitment. The activism based on this commitment was not limited to union work or even to the arts. My involvement with politics in America started almost from the day of my arrival at the airport in New York, possibly even...

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14: I Sing and I’ll Keep Singing

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pp. 267-288

IN THE BEGINNING I WAS DRAWN TO folk music because of its storytelling aspect, because this was the musical tradition I was brought up in, and maybe also because my musical aptitude did not extend to more involved and sophisticated styles. Had it not been for folk songs I might soon have become a man out of his time and place. I stayed around for a long, long time in the midst of movements that mandated...

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15: Versatility

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pp. 289-320

FROM TIME TO TIME PEOPLE WOULD ASK ME, "How come you do everything so well?" My answer is invariably, "Simple. Whatever I don't do well, I don't do." The truth of the matter is that there are many things I don't do well at all. Some of them I am forced to do from time to time because of the demands of my profession. I am a clumsy and reluctant dancer but I do dance when the role asks for it...

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16: Tevye

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pp. 321-354

IF THERE ARE SUCH THINGS AS PREORDAINED EVENTS, then I was surely destined to play Tevye the Milkman. Not only did I have the requisite talent and the voice for this musical role, I also had a personal background that put me much closer to it than many who would need a longer reach in order to make the part their own. The literature was...

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17: From Jerusalem to Jerusalem

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pp. 355-365

THE ROLE OF TEVYE CAME NATURALLY TO ME for a number of reasons. The musical tradition I inherited from my family was that of the shtetl and of the later emergence from it. These were the songs of the Pale of Settlement, of amcho, the simple working people, of things sacred and of things secular. The songs were the product of two cultural processes, one simple and one complicated. The simple...

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18: Entebbe, Vanessa, and Other Thoughts

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pp. 366-381

IN THE USUAL COMMERCIAL HASTE THAT MOTIVATES most studio executives, the heroic feat of the Entebbe raid in July 1976 spawned three--count 'em, three-movies; all of them were filmed within weeks of the incident. The funny thing is that all of them were good movies and were successful, even though they were in direct competition among themselves. For sheer international breadth of performance, Operation Thunderbolt was the best...

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19: Zorba

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pp. 382-405

AS A RULE, AN ACTOR BRINGS TO A ROLE whatever he can from the arsenal of knowledge and emotion he carries as his personal baggage. Whatever you don't have, you purloin from literature and from imagination. In lifting a role from the printed page you add those elements, in a sense subsuming parts of your own life for the enrichment of the character. Rarely does the character add elements to the actor...

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20: Toward the Millennium

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pp. 406-427

ALL THAT IS LEFT FOR ME BEFORE CONCLUDING this narrative is to cast a last long look backward and a quick glance forward. I consider 1993 and 1994 milestones, both in terms of world events that affected my life and in terms of personal history. The year 1993 was the sixtieth anniversary of Hitler's rise to power, an event that the world remembers as the beginning of state-sanctioned criminality, which left scars on Europe's face and consciousness that will not...

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pp. 429-430

WHILE I HOPE THAT IT IS FAR FROM OVER, it’s been quite a journey. Through all the peregrinations and vicissitudes, I have learned a lot about art and about life—though, I am afraid, less about myself than I wanted to, and considerably less than I needed to. Throughout this book I have spoken at times as a union leader, at other times as a politician, a lecturer, a would-be scholar, a musician, a…

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Postscript 2002

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pp. 431-441

The events I described in the final pages of this book took place more than eight years ago. In the interim so much has changed the world and our perception of it that I feel the need to take stock once more. The events that brought together Yassir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin at the White House and gave rise to so much hope, expectation, and promise, were also fraught with dangers and pitfalls that I recognized...


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pp. 443-452

Image Plates

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pp. 184-185

E-ISBN-13: 9780299182830
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299182847

Publication Year: 2002