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    Updated April 24, 2014

Theodore Bikel Celebrates a Milestone 
By Helaine Feldman

Having spent more than half of his lifetime involved in the union, it’s indisputable that Theodore Bikel, who celebrates his 90th birthday on May 2, has played an important role in Equity’s past.

The actor, folksinger, musician, author, raconteur, political activist and union leader, who is a Vienna native, came to the United States in 1954 to appear on Broadway in Tonight in Samarkand. He joined Equity that year and hit the ground running — joining committees and lending his voice to significant issues of the day. Aside from being a vocal and effective member of the union’s Legislative Committee, Bikel made numerous public appearances during the Equity-League dispute in 1960, which resulted in the establishment of Equity’s pension plan. He joined the Council in 1961 as an interim replacement and subsequently was elected to a five-year term in 1962. In that year, too, he was one of seven incorporators of the Actors Federal Credit Union, who contributed their own money to pay for the charter application.

As First Vice-President from 1964 to 1973, he continued as the face and voice of the union, making numerous trips to Washington, D.C., where he met with government leaders to press for legislative reforms beneficial to the professional actor. As early as 1967, he said, “Equity must redefine itself in terms of unionism in an age of computers.” 

Clearly, “prophet” could be added to an already impressive résumé. 

In 1973, he was elected President, a post he held for nine years. In his farewell address in Los Angeles in 1982, Bikel recalled some successes in the years he headed the union. He concluded , saying “there might have been many who could have filled my shoes better — but I can imagine no one who would have honored the theatre more, loved this union better or had a more abiding passion for his fellow actors.”   

“Theo Bikel has had an astonishing career,” said Equity President, Nick Wyman. “What is even more astonishing and admirable is the time and energy he has found over the past decades to be a force for good, not only in civil rights, progressive politics, and arts advocacy, but also in union leadership. He has served the members of Actors’ Equity and actors in general for over 50 years. Happy birthday, Theo — and thank you.” 

However, Bikel was not just an active union member. He also served as a delegate to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, was appointed by President Carter to serve a five-year term on the National Council for the Arts and held the position of Senior Vice President of the American Jewish Congress. Additionally, Bikel was Vice President of the International Federation of Actors (FIA) and has served as President of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America (4As) since 1987. His autobiography, Theo, was published in 1995.

His professional career has been equally stellar. On the Great White Way he appeared in The Rope Dancers, The Lark and the original Broadway production of The Sound of Music (he created the role of Baron von Trapp and received a Tony nomination). He also has played the role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof more than 2,100 times over a 42-year period. Films include The Defiant Ones, for which he received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor; The African Queen, My Fair Lady; The Russians Are Coming, The Russians are Coming; and dozens more. In 2005, he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

He has appeared with opera companies around the country, received an Emmy for his work on TV, has recorded many albums of contemporary and folk songs and has received numerous honors and awards — not to mention that he is fluent in more than half a dozen European and Middle Eastern languages (and sings folk songs in nearly 20 languages often accompanying himself on guitar, mandolin, balalaika and harmonica).   

As Equity President Emeritus and President of the Four As — and with a full schedule of concerts and appearances — even at the age of 90, Bikel shows little sign of slowing down. 

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