BWW SPECIAL FEATURE: How I Got My Equity Card - By Theodore Bikel
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"I got my Equity card in 1954, when I was offered a job in a Broadway show, TONIGHT IN SAMARKAND starring Louis Jourdan. Actors' Equity was seldom inclined to admit foreign actors without good and sufficient proof that all avenues to cast an American had been exhausted. Since I was a British citizen, the producers had to appear before the Equity Council and plead their case -- my case. In retrospect I cannot believe that, at the time, there was no American actor able and willing to do this part. The producers must have been extraordinarily persuasive or else the Equity Council was in an unusually benign mood that week for they allowed them to import me for the role. Little could they suspect that, by doing so, they bought themselves a future President for their own Union."
Theodore Bikel started his professional career in 1943 with his apprenticeship at the Habimah Theatre, Tel Aviv. Interestingly, his first professional role was a small part in the dramatic play TEVYE, THE MILKMAN which later furnished the inspiration for FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. He became a co-founder of the Cameri Theatre, playing classical and modern drama in Hebrew. But with the end of the war, the outside world beckoned and he decided on further study at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Having graduated with honors from RADA, he proceeded to roles in London's West End, the mecca of all English actors. Sir Laurence Olivier cast him in a small supporting role in STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, starring Vivien Leigh. But Olivier also gave him the understudy to the two male leads. Theodore Bikel played both roles at various times and eventually was asked to take over the second male lead, Mitch, a few months into the run.
Stage roles followed in quick succession, the most notable a long run in Peter Ustinov's THE LOVE OF FOUR COLONELS. In 1954 while appearing in the West End play DEAR CHARLES, Theodore Bikel received an invitation to appear on Broadway in a play starring Louis Jourdan entitled TONIGHT IN SAMARKAND.
From then on it was the American theatre to which he committed his energy, both on and off stage. It was his devotion to the theatre and to all who toil in it which caused him to be involved with Actors' Equity, the union of stage performers which he served as Vice President and as President from 1973 to 1982. Since 1988, he has been President of the 4As, the Association of Actors and Artistes of America.
Broadway audiences also saw him in The Lark, The Rope Dancers and, most prominently in the world premiere of The Sound of Music in which he created the role of Captain von Trapp.
Despite a flurry of film and TV commitments, Bikel managed to keep a steady and varied theatre career going. Highlights were JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS, ZORBA, THE ROTHSCHILDS, THE GOOD DOCTOR, THE INSPECTOR GENERAL, SHE LOVES ME, and others. But the role he has been most identified with ever since 1967 is Tevye in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF , which by last count he has played more often than any actor-over 2000 times!
It is no exaggeration to say that theatre occupies the central place in Theodore Bikel's life. Summing up his attitude toward life and theatre, he stated to a group of students; "In all my long years, hardly a day has gone by when I have not thanked providence for allowing me to escape from the absurd artificiality of everyday living into the reality of theatre."
Visit Theodore Bikel's web site at www.bikel.com.
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