Joseph Stein dies at 98; adapted Yiddish short story into ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

Playwright Joseph Stein, who turned a Yiddish short story into the classic Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof” and later wrote the screenplay for its successful movie adaptation, has died. He was 98.

His wife, Elisa Stein, said he died at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York on Sunday of complications from a fall.

Stein, who won a Tony Award for his work on “Fiddler,” supplied the book, or story, for nearly a dozen other musicals, including “Zorba,” “Mr. Wonderful” and “Plain and Fancy.” He also wrote for radio and for television during its early golden age, working for such performers as Henry Morgan, Sid Caesar and Phil Silvers.

But it was “Fiddler,” based on Sholom Aleichem’s “Tevye and His Daughters,” that proved to be his biggest hit. Featuring a score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins, the show opened on Broadway in September 1964 and ran for more than 3,200 performances.


It starred Zero Mostel as Tevye, the Jewish milkman forced to deal with a changing world — not to mention a changing family life — in early 20th century Russia.

“Fiddler” has had several Broadway revivals, the last in 2004 in a production that featured Alfred Molina as Tevye. Topol starred in the 1971 film version.

It was Mostel who helped Stein get started in the business. Born May 30, 1912, in New York, Stein became a social worker after earning a bachelor’s degree from City College of New York and a master’s from Columbia University in 1937. Through a friend he met Mostel, who was looking for material for his comic routines on radio. Stein wrote some jokes for Mostel and soon left social work behind for full-time writing.

Stein’s theater career was remarkable for its longevity — some six decades. Starting in 1948, when he and writing partner Will Glickman contributed sketches to the revue “Lend an Ear,” featuring a young Carol Channing, he was still working 60 years later.


At 96, he was on hand for a 2008 off-Broadway production of his play “Enter Laughing.” The comedy about a young man determined to enter show business opened on Broadway in 1963 and showcased a rising new actor named Alan Arkin.

Stein and Glickman had their first big success with the book for “Plain and Fancy” (1955), a charming musical that found worldly-wise New Yorkers confronting life in a Pennsylvania Amish community. That was followed by “Mr. Wonderful” (1956), the musical that introduced to Broadway Sammy Davis Jr., playing a nightclub performer vaguely similar to Davis himself.

“Take Me Along” (1959), a musical version of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” and starring Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidgeon, was another hit. So was “Zorba,” adapted from the Anthony Quinn movie “Zorba the Greek,” first seen on Broadway in 1968 with Herschel Bernardi in the title role and later (1983) in an even more popular revival starring Quinn.

Stein’s first wife, Sadie Singer, died in 1974. Besides his second wife, Stein is survived by three sons from his first marriage, a stepson, a stepdaughter and six grandchildren.

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