JERUSALEM — Haim Topol, a leading Israeli actor who charmed generations of theatergoers and moviegoers with his portrayal of Teveh, the long-suffering and charismatic milkman in “Fiddler on the Roof,” has died in Tel Aviv, Israeli leaders said Thursday. He was 87.
The reason was not immediately given.
Israeli leaders wrote their memories and condolences to the Topol family on Thursday.
Israel’s ceremonial president, Isaac Herzog, called Topol “one of the most outstanding Israeli actors” who “filled the screens with his presence and, above all, deeply entered our hearts.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “Topol’s contribution to Israeli culture will continue to exist for generations.” .
Benny Gantz, Israel’s former defense minister, praised Poplar for helping Israelis connect with their roots.
“We laughed and cried at the same time over the deepest wounds of Israeli society,” he wrote about Topol’s performance.
Yair Lapid, the head of the Israeli opposition, said that Tapola taught Israelis “love for culture and love for the land.”
Poplar’s charity, Jordan River Village, also announced his death, paying tribute to him as an “inspiration” whose “legacy will live on for generations to come”.
A winner of two Golden Globe Awards and nominated for an Oscar and a Tony Award, Topolya has long been one of Israel’s most decorated actors. Most recently, in 2015, he was honored for his contributions to film and culture with the Israel Lifetime Achievement Award, his country’s most prestigious award. Until a few years ago, he continued to work in the theater and said that he was still submitting requests for the role of Tevye.
Poplar began playing in the Israeli army theater troupe in the 1950s, where he met his future wife Galia. His first big break was starring in the 1964 Israeli hit Salla Shabbati, about the hardships of Middle Eastern immigrants in Israel. The film made history as the first Israeli film to receive an Academy Award nomination, and also gave Poplar his first Golden Globe Award.
Two years later, he made his English-language film debut alongside Kirk Douglas in Cast a Giant Shadow. But the role of his life came in the long-running musical Fiddler on the Roof, in which he played the milkman protagonist Tevye, a Jewish father who tries to preserve his family’s cultural traditions despite the chaos that engulfs their Russian town.
With his rich voice, folk wit and commanding stage presence, Tevye of Poplar, who drove his horse-drawn cart and delivered milk, butter and eggs to the rich, became a popular hero in Israel and around the world.
After years of playing Tevye on stage in London and on Broadway, he starred in Norman Jewison’s 1971 film version, winning a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. He lost to Gene Hackman in The French Connection.
Poplar has played the role more than 3,500 times on stage, most recently in 2009. With heavy make-up and costume work, he portrayed a much older, stocky 30-something milkman for the first time and literally aged into the role.
Topol faced stiff competition to land the part in Jewison’s hit film, with a host of talent playing Teve in more than a dozen languages since Fiddler on the Roof was released. Topolya said his personal experience as a descendant of Russian Jews helped him connect with Teve and deepen his performance.
In an interview with The Associated Press from his home in Tel Aviv in 2015 to accept Israel’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Topola traced his meteoric rise from humble beginnings to global fame.
“I wasn’t raised in Hollywood. I was brought up in a kibbutz,” he said. “Sometimes I’m surprised when I come to China, or when I come to Tokyo, or when I come to France, or when I come anywhere, and the immigration officer says, ‘Poplar, Poplar, are you Poplar?’
Topol also appeared in more than 30 other films, including the title role in Galileo, Dr. Hans Zarkov in Flash Gordon, and James Bond’s phony ally Miloš Columbus in For Your Eyes Only opposite Roger Moore.
But he became synonymous with only one role – Tevye. Telling about his impoverished Jewish community over the years, Poplar has made audiences laugh and cry from Broadway and West End stages.
“How many people are known for one part? How many people in my profession are famous in the world?” he told the AP. “I’m not complaining.”
Still, Poplar said he sometimes has to look outside of acting to find meaning in his life. He devoted much of his later years to philanthropy as chairman of the board of Jordan River Village, a camp for Middle Eastern children with life-threatening illnesses.
“I’m interested in charity and find it more satisfying than running from one (acting) role to another,” he said. “When you’re successful in a movie and the money is flowing, yes, obviously, it’s very nice. But to tell you that it is the most important thing, I am not sure.”
Topola is survived by his wife and three children.