Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Oozing Charm From Every Pore

It was a day of loss--Theo Bikel and E. L. Doctorow dying on the same day.  But it's hard to be sad about Bikel--he was 91 and had had a very amazing life.  He had become known for playing all kinds of relatively modest roles on stage and in the movies, as well as for his folk singing. And he did originate the role of Baron von Trapp in The Sound of Music on Broadway--a show I've studiously avoided for decades but figure at least he likely contributed a bit of authenticity to its schmalz.

Many will remember him as the most frequent portrayer of Tevye in Fiddler, which is fine, although as with every role Zero Mostel originated, it's hard for anyone to succeed completely when following in those footsteps. But Bikel donned the dairyman's overalls more than 2,000 times so I figure he earned his recognition and probably would have told you that it was a most reliable payday.  And given how many other accomplishments he earned on stage and in film, this was no James O'Neill stuck playing The Count of Monte Cristo to the exclusion of all else.

Bikel lent a note of charm to anything he played.  Supporting parts are not supposed to steal from the leads, yet you were enraptured when he appeared. His history--growing up in pre-war Austria and disclaiming any interest in "Viennese heritage" in view of how the posturing "first victims" had behaved toward "my people"--featuring a start in performing in, of all places, Palestine between the wars gave him a worldliness few possessed.

Moreover, he was a true union champion. He rose to the occasion during Equity's 1960 strike and after serving on many committees, was the union's president for many years and then headed the actors' international, the Four A's, for a quarter-century. Wouldn't we have been far better off had he, instead of another supporting player who headed a theatrical union, become America's first President who had served as a union prez?

Doctorow's legacy is more complex but equally stupendous. He had a way of planting you in the era of his loosely-related historical novels, most notably Ragtime. But his most enduring one may turn out to be The Book of Daniel, his imagining of what a son of the Rosenbergs might have experienced. As with so many artists, he saw the craziness of the Rosenberg furor for what it was: yes, we know Julius Rosenberg was guilty, and definitely that even the prosecutors knew Ethel wasn't, but what Sam Roberts and others have shown is that far from being "the crime of the century"--J. Edgar Hoover's phoney assertion--the Russians likely already had received all the nuclear secrets they needed from Klaus Fuchs, who was sentenced in Britain to a brief five years and then high-tailed it to Moscow.

Doctorow had the ability to get you beneath the skin of his characters so you felt yourself the torments they were experiencing. I remember getting annoyed with some of his archetypes in Ragtime until realizing that he had caught a particular character perfectly, like Mother's Younger Brother.  He too was willing to speak up for what he believed--and what he believed made sense.


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