Welcome to 70 Faces of Israel. To celebrate 70 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, we’re looking at 70 people whose remarkable stories have changed our country and the world.
Name: Chaim Topol (also known as “Topol”)
Date of Birth: 9th September 1935, Tel Aviv, British Mandate Palestine
Claim to Fame: Golden Globe-Winning Israeli Actor – Fiddler on the Roof
In 1971… Topol starred in the Fiddler on the Roof film
Born in pre-Israel Mandatory Palestine to working-class parents, Chaim Topol had early dreams of becoming an artist. However, his teachers recognised his talent for performance and encouraged him to act in school plays. Topol graduated from high school aged 17 and moved to a kibbutz.
Topol then drafted to the IDF’s Nahal entertainment troupe (where Naomi Shemer also served). The group performed for other soldiers around the country, helping raise morale. Commander Topol married Galia, a fellow Nahal performer, three weeks after they left active service. Two days later, the army recalled him to serve in the Sinai campaign.
Back on kibbutz, Topol established a theatre company comprised of other Nahal soldiers. The performers toured the country four days a week and work on kibbutz the rest of the time. His passion for song and dance saw him join a satirical theatre group, Batzal Yarok, and found the Haifa Municipal Theatre.
Topol’s entry into the world of film came in 1961, with Israeli movie I Like Mike. However, his real breakthrough moment happened in 1964 when he was cast as the titular character in Sallah Shabati. The satirical film depicts the life of a Mizrahi immigrant in the new State of Israel and the culture clash that ensues. It won international acclaim, scooping the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Topol catapulted onto the world stage: he won the 1964 Golden Gate for Best Actor and the 1965 Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer.
Without a doubt, Topol’s career is defined by his role as Tevye the dairy man in the musical Fiddler on the Roof. He first played Tevye in the Israeli stage production of the now iconic musical. When producers wanted to open the Broadway hit in London’s West End, they called Topol to audition. He memorised the score and won the part.
When casting began for the 1971 film adaptation, directors chose Topol over Broadway veteran Zero Mostel for the leading role. Topol trained for months to master the English script and score, and his performance led to a Golden Globe, and Academy Award and Tony nominations. He reprised the role countless times, starring in the West End, US tours, Broadway, and in Israel.
See Topol’s iconic performance as Tevye below:
As well as his iconic portrayal of Tevye, Chaim Topol starred in more than 30 other movies and TV shows, including a James Bond film. He earned renown for his many other talents. As well as recording film soundtracks, children’s songs, and Israeli war songs, he authored three books. He also illustrated 25 different Hebrew and English books, and saw his sketches of Israeli presidents turned into stamps.
As well as being a multi-talented Israeli star, Topol is also a philanthropist. In 1967, he founded an organisation for special needs children called Variety Israel. He also co-founded and chairs the Jordan River Village. Established in 2012, the year-round camp strives to make life better for Arab and Israeli children with life threatening illnesses.
Among other awards and accolades, Topol received an honorary degree from the University of Haifa to celebrate 50 years of cultural and public life. He also received the Israel Prize – Israel’s highest national honour – for lifetime achievement.
Chaim Topol married Galia Finkelstein in 1956. They have three children, and live in Galia’s childhood home in Tel Aviv. All these years later, people still ask him to come back and play Tevye!
Previously: 1970: Shai Agnon
Up next: 1972: Dana International