'Fiddler' by design

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Yet it helps.

Not that Topol in his youth imagined becoming Tevye--or anyone else--on the musical stage. His parents never had the radio tuned to music, he didn't take music lessons as a child and the primary music he heard was that of cantors in synagogue, their lamenting phrases audibly influencing his speech and singing in "Fiddler."

It wasn't until he inexplicably decided to form a choir in an Israeli kibbutz and proceeded to continue singing--and, then, acting--in the army that he found his calling (if not yet his pitch). Eventually, with practice and some coaching, his singing improved dramatically, building on his preternaturally magnificent pipes.

The rigors of performing under often-difficult conditions in the Israeli army gave bulk and heft to an already formidable set of lungs.

"One of the advantages I had was that I had a strong voice," says Topol. "We didn't have microphones or anything, so we really had to scream."

After his time in the army, he helped found a roving, satirical-theatrical kibbutz troupe called Spring Onion, which became something of a national institution and launched his performance career in earnest. One of the stock characters he developed--an old Jewish emigre struggling in 1950s Israel--became the title character of the Oscar-nominated Israeli film "Sallah" (1964), Topol's tour de force performance that got him the audition for the London "Fiddler."

When film director Jewison appeared backstage to say he wanted Topol for the big-screen "Fiddler," "I was shocked," says the actor. "I have no idea why he picked me," he adds; in his memoir, "Topol by Topol," he pays deep homage to Zero Mostel , who originated the role.

Yet Jewison picked Topol, and in his memoir he speculates on why:

"The Fiddler is essentially a tragicomedy; the first act is more comedy until just before the interval [intermission], and from then on it becomes quite sad," writes Topol.

"If one stresses the comic element too much in the first half, it is very difficult to sway the audience to the tragic second act. Watching [the Yiddish actor] Rodenski , I learned how dramatic the second half could be and felt that the show was more than just another musical. I tried to follow his example and find the right balance. I think it was also the sort of balance which Norman Jewison felt the story called for, which is probably why I got the film part. On the other hand, the fact that I was a good deal less expensive than other candidates may also have had something to do with it ."

So is Topol really hanging up Tevye's milk wagon after this tour?

"When they invited me to do this, they asked if they could put 'Farewell Tour,'" says Topol, who lives in Tel Aviv with his wife, Galia (they have three children and several grandchildren).

"And I said OK. But if they ask again at the age of 80, and I'm able to do it again, I'll do it. ...

"I'm always happy to come back to Tevye."

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