Vienna-born Theodore Bikel had recently graduated from London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art when Michael Redgrave recommended him to Laurence Olivier. The titan of British theater was casting his 1949 London production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," starring his wife, Vivien Leigh, as Blanche DuBois.
Olivier gave the 25-year-old Bikel a small role as well as the plum task of understudying the key roles of Stanley and Mitch. Later, he graduated to the role of Mitch when the Tennessee Williams play went on tour.
Olivier, said Bikel, was a consummate actor, but as a director "he didn't guide you, he showed you how he would have played it. You knew you couldn't do it that way or that well. He always wanted you to call him Larry, but you always had the suspicion that if you sort of slapped him on the back and called him 'Larry,' he would turn around as Sir Laurence."
When he finished his engagement with "Streetcar," Bikel starred in Peter Ustinov's hit London play "The Love of Four Colonels," where he caught the eye of another famous director, John Huston, who was in town to complete production on his 1951 classic "The African Queen," starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Huston was interested in Bikel for the role of the German gunboat captain.
"He was backstage chatting and in his dry manner called me over and said, 'Let me ask you a question? Could you do a German accent?' I said, "Could I do a German accent? I think I could lay my hands on more than just one German accent.' He said, 'OK. You're on. Report next Monday.' That's how I got the role."
Since "African Queen," Bikel's been a mainstay in films, most notably in his Oscar-nominated role as a Southern sheriff in 1958's "The Defiant Ones" and as Zoltan Karpathy in the Oscar-winning 1964 musical, "My Fair Lady" — as well as television ("Falcon Crest," "Murder, She Wrote") and of course the stage as an actor and singer.
Bikel turned 90 last month, but to him it's just a number and no excuse to slow down. "I never felt my age," he said with a smile. "I certainly don't feel 90 — maybe 70 — but not 90."
On this bright morning, Bikel is sitting in a comfortable easy chair in the expansive Westwood apartment he shares with his journalist wife, Aimee Ginsburg, whom he married last fall.
Bikel may have retired a few years ago from his best-known role of Sholom Aleichem's beloved Tevye in the musical "Fiddler on the Roof" after more than four decades and more than 2,000 performances, but he certainly hasn't stopped working.
"Theo is more active than anybody I know," noted Ginsburg. "The latest edition of his autobiography, 'Theo,' just hit the shops with an update. He keeps calling it the final chapter, and we all keep correcting him that it's just the latest chapter."
He's also stars in the new documentary, "Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem," based on his one-man show, "Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears." The documentary premieres in July at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
And he's still doing concerts. "Everybody wants to hear him," noted Ginsburg proudly.
In fact, Bikel will be performing Monday evening at "Theo, L'Chaim to Life Concert Celebrating Theodore Bikel's 90th Birthday" at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills. Ed Asner is hosting the star-studded birthday party, which will feature performances folk singers including Arlo Guthrie, Tom Paxton and Peter Yarrow.
Bikel became interested in folk music when he was in London and embraced American folk music upon his arrival in New York in 1954 for the Broadway play "Tonight in Samarkand."
"I was friendly with all the folk musicians of whom there were many — the Clancy Brothers, Pete Seeger and the Weavers and Tom Paxton," Bikel said. "Folk music was about youth. Everybody expressed themselves and their feelings about their surroundings and their country, about poverty, oppression and civil rights."
Bikel began a successful recording career as a folk music artist in 1955 and co-founded the Newport Folk Festival with Seeger and other folkies.
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein even wrote the beloved folk song "Edelweiss" for Bikel to perform as Captain Von Trapp in the original 1959 Broadway production of "The Sound of Music."
"People thought it was a genuine Austrian folk song, which it was not," said Bikel.
"'Edelweiss,'" noted Bikel, was the last song for which Hammerstein, who was dying of cancer, wrote the lyrics. "I always like to point out the last word this dying man wrote creatively was 'forever' — that was the last word in 'Edelweiss."'
'Theo, L'Chaim to Life! Concert Celebrating Theodore Bikel's 90th Birthday'
Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills
7:30 p.m. Monday
Admission: $27.60 to $203.85
Tickets available at ticketmaster.com
For more information go to http://www.facebook.com/events/292033907617975/Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times