A noted folksinger, actor, and activist relates his personal story, from his childhood in pre-Nazi Vienna and his teenage years in a kibbutz to his stage debut in A Streetcar Named Desire and his presence at the Israeli-Palestinian peace signing. Welcome to the entertaining and enlightening memoirs of the renowned character actor and folksinger.
Nearly everyone has seen and heard Theodore Bikel during the career that now spans a half century of seemingly countless appearances onstage (in the theatre in concert, and in opera), on screen (in feature films and on television), in club shows (from Atlantic City and New York to Chicago and San Francisco), and at home (in numerous TV specials, series, miniseries, movies of the week, and in many radio appearances and recordings).
Now this multitalented artist tells the colorful, dramatic story of his life: childhood in pre-Nazi Vienna, teenage years on a kibbutz, acting studies at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, stage debut in the British production of A Streetcar Named Desire, film debut in The African Queen, roles as bizarrely varied as Baron von Trapp and Tevye, a crowded schedule as one of the world’s best-known folksingers, and activism on behalf of civil rights and civil liberties.
All of this has brought Bikel into proximity with many of the great names of our time, who will duly make their appearance.
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—God forbid any warts should show. Sometimes even genuine attempts at honesty are thwarted by a lifelong habit of blowing one’s own trumpet.
A theatrical producer, so the story goes, had a terrible flop on his hands. He went to the theatre one evening, counted the house, and stood outside under the marquee, shaking his head dejectedly. Seven paying customers: a disaster! A friend walked by and inquired, “How’s your show doing?” The producer, attempting an honest admission of failure, said, “Not good, not good. Small audience—eleven people.” If my unconscious should play tricks of this kind that I am unable to detect or prevent, I hereby apologize in advance.
Plato quotes Socrates as saying: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I have, from time to time, been accused by my family of living an unexamined life. In truth, I have always felt, rightly or wrongly, that my life was worth living, whether examined or not. I have admittedly not been eager to subject myself to a self-examination, possibly for fear that the shortcomings I would find might overwhelm any sense of worth I have about myself. Now I suppose I must take that look and chance a possible endangerment to my inner equilibrium.
Most people lead two distinct lives—a private life and a public one. Others lead multiple lives; I am one of those. Professionally I can count three or four separate existences, politically three or four more. Add the personal aspects and altogether they add up to a cat’s count of nine. Among them I play no favorites, and for the most part I’ve managed not to be overwhelmed by their number or by their demands for different kinds of attention and different aptitudes.
I have dealt with them by compartmentalizing. Each of the lives, as I live it, I treat as though it were the only life I have. Yet in some way each in turn has served to inform other facets of me. In this book I have tried to open each one to see if they hang together. In the process I often abandon strict chronology, letting the themes be my guide rather than the calendar. Bear with me.
Noted film actor (The Defiant Ones), Broadway star (The Sound of Music) and folksinger Bikel documents his life, beginning in 1938, when he escaped with his family at age 13 from German-occupied Austria. He recalls his early days in the Hebrew Theatre in Palestine, his training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and his move to the US, where he continued his acting career and became intimately involved with folk music.
Extremely versatile, he has performed in the theater, in films, on radio, on TV and in other venues. Bikel has led an active political life as well, and his narrative is interspersed with comments on his work for Democratic Party causes, the National Council on the Arts, the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement of the 1960s, and on behalf of Soviet Jewry and other Jewish causes. Pride in accomplishment is understandable, but it’s no excuse for an autobiography that is too long and at times tedious. 🌳