Chaim Topol, the Israeli actor who achieved international stardom for his portrayal of Tevye in several stage productions of “Fiddler on the Roof” as well as the 1971 stage adaptation, died Wednesday at his home in Israel. He was 87 and had been battling Alzheimer’s disease.
Israel’s President, Isaac Herzog, announced the news, saying in a statement that Topol was a “gifted actor who conquered many stages in Israel and overseas, filled the cinema screens with his presence and especially entered deep into our hearts.”
Though Topal was best known for “Fiddler,” over his decades-long career he also starred in a range of films that have become recognized as classics. Among them, he portrayed mad scientist Hans Zarkov in director Mike Hodges’ “Flash Gordon” (1980) and the smuggler-turned-hero Milos Columbo in the 1981 James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only.”
Topal was born in Tel Aviv, then part of British Mandate Palestine, in 1935. He first developed an interest in acting as a young child, but it wasn’t until his mandatory enlistment in the Israeli Defense Force that he began performing as part of the service’s entertainment division. Following his military service — which included active duty during the Suez Crisis in 1956 — he began working in mostly local theater.
His career took off in the 1960s, first in Israeli cinema before making his English language movie debut in the 1965 Kirk Douglas film “Cast a Giant Shadow.”
He landed his career-defining role of Tevye the milkman in 1966, starring in the Israeli production of the hit musical. He was soon cast in the West End production, and eventually appeared in more than 400 performances. Director Norman Jewison cast Topol as the lead in his film adaptation of “Fiddler” after seeing one of these performances, choosing the 36-year-old over several major stars including Zero Mostel, who originated the part on Broadway.
Topol — by this point billed only by his last name due to the difficulty British English speakers had pronouncing his first name, Chaim — won Best Actor, Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes and received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for the role. He lost the latter to Gene Hackman.
He would play Tevye in numerous other productions over the years, and later estimated he’d performed in the role 3,500 times.
Topol met his wife, Galia Finkelstein, during their military service. They married in 1956 and remained married until his death. He’s survived by his wife and their three children.