Herschel Bernardi, First ‘Zorba’ on Broadway, Dies
Veteran actor Herschel Bernardi, whose face was known for his many television roles and for such stage portrayals as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” and whose voice was familiar as that of Charley the Tuna or the Jolly Green Giant in commercials, died Friday at his Los Angeles home. He was 62.
His sister-in-law, Sophie Bernardi, said he suffered a massive heart attack early in the morning.
The balding Bernardi became widely recognizable as Lt. Jacoby on the “Peter Gunn” television series that ran from 1958 to 1961. He starred in his own 1970-72 series, “Arnie,” about a loading dock foreman whose life was changed by promotion to an executive position.
He performed in such films as “A Cold Wind in August” (1961); “Irma La Douce” (1963); “Love With the Proper Stranger” (1964) and “The Front” (1976).
In the late 1930s he was in two Yiddish films, “Green Fields” and “Yankel the Blacksmith.”
His biggest stage hit was as the philosophical milkman in “Fiddler on the Roof,” the part Zero Mostel created on Broadway. Bernardi took over the role in 1965, traveling with the show to Los Angeles and other West Coast cities. He played more than 1,200 performances as Tevye.
In 1968, he was the first star of “Zorba!” on Broadway, a role for which he received a Tony nomination. Remarkably, he performed the athletic Greek dances and 10-foot leaps despite the fact that 10 years earlier his left leg had been crushed when his motor scooter collided with an automobile.
He also scored a success in 1979 in Herb Gardner’s “The Goodbye People,” playing Max, an angry Coney Island hot dog stand proprietor.
Throughout most of those years, Bernardi was being heard in the nation’s living rooms as the voice of the Jolly Green Giant and Charley the Tuna in television commercials. He recently was given a plaque by Star-Kist for serving for 25 years as the voice of Charley, a tuna who had good taste but didn’t taste good enough to be canned.
His voice-only career began in the mid-50s when he realized there was a big demand for character voices in commercials. He made a tape recording of himself doing nearly two dozen different voices, then “jumped on my motor scooter and went from agency to agency selling myself.”
He was seen in numerous television shows, including “Matinee Theater,” where he appeared 22 times, and “Bonanza.”
Bernardi was not one to sit around waiting for the big-salaried jobs. Even after he was successful in the early 1960s, he played the so-called “Freeway Circuit” in Southern California, doing the pathetic Willie Loman in “Death of a Salesman” at one-night stands on college campuses and in community theaters.
He said he did it out of a need for applause.
Bernardi was born Oct. 30, 1923, in New York City. He made his theatrical debut at the age of 3 months in his mother’s arms. His parents were traveling actors on the Yiddish stage. At 12, he played his first Broadway role, in the play “Dead End.”
By his mid-20s, he had already played on Broadway and had knocked around Hollywood. His career, however, developed slowly.
Blacklisted by CBS-TV
Because he had enrolled in the Actors Lab, a gathering place for Hollywood radicals in the 1940s, Bernardi was blacklisted for two seasons by CBS-TV. “I inadvertently found out when I lost three jobs in a row,” he once told an interviewer. “A friend informed me that my credentials had been checked and said, ‘Your name came up dirty.’ ”
But because he was fairly new to the business, the blacklisting did not hurt him as much as it did some better-known performers. By 1958 he was on “Peter Gunn” and was winning an Emmy nomination.
He leaves his wife, Teri, and their 15-month-old son, Michael. He also leaves three children by a former marriage as well as two brothers, Jack and Sam.
Funeral services are pending.