We entered this interview with the agreement that Theodore Bikel would be in the character of Tevye, who is now 250 years old. Tevye is the simple 'Everyman,' this multi-hyphenate folksinger, actor and peace activist made famous in the Broadway musical, "Fiddler on the Roof."
A thought piece done funny on the 45th anniversary of no-fault divorce?
Theo is granting interviews in conjunction with reissuing his memoir, "Theo: An Autobiography." What's new is the intimate and apologetic final chapter, "on righting some wrongs with my sons." Born about the time no fault divorce was invented, they are now about the same age Theo was in his penultimate marriage.
Theo wrote this last chapter from the, "vantage point of a 91 year old from the inside, to sum up, if it's possible, an entire lifetime, the pluses and minuses. Things gone right and wrong, and my failure as a father weighs heavily on me."
He's reminded of a quote from the movie, "Argo," starring his dear friend, Alan Arkin. "This job is like being a coal miner, it doesn't wash off." He expanded on the thought, "I had been so busy clearing the path towards peace in the world that I didn't know how to clear the path to peace at home. I took the light into many places to develop into an intellectual thrown out by Nazis, 8 years in Palestine, 8 years in England, my time in Paris with the gypsies, landing in a gorgeous place America, always bigger than it's fulfillment."
Equally worthy of attention is Bikel's performance-film cum bio-pic called, "Walking in the Shoes of Sholem Alechim," which will be in theatres starting June 7th. Theo reanimates Alechim's healing holy tales from the shtetl including characters like Tevye, the milkman.
The ranks of Theo's contemporaries may be thinning out, but Bikel's voice is strong over the phone, as in the film. Aware our time was waning, I asked what would Tevye think of the current state of courtship and commitment? "In Tevye's world it was a matriarchal society. Father brought in a living, the money. There was no thought of divorce. It was unthinkable."
Did Tevye know that no-fault divorce was legislated into being by Ronald Reagan his first act his second term as governor of California in 1970? Tevye's take? "I never thought of Reagan as a liberator."
Did Tevye know there are parents involved in something called diaper and blanket custody wars over young children? "He talks to god and determines custody is a temporary thing. We were given a short lease on what fate has in store for us. Our life is a short lease."
Does Tevye see how no-fault divorce - orginally intentioned as a legal solution developed by lawyers who belonged to the Beverly Hills bar association - for Hollywood movie stars would take off like crazy in the early days of feminism? No answer.
Warning to shared-custody advocates for what comes next. You will not appreciate mother-centric Tevye. It's a little eerie to keep a conversation going with this ancient man due to my modern sensibilities.
With regards to joint custody of young children Bikel insists, Tevye would, "not understand or approve if he did understand," before he breaks out of character and adds: "And I'm a very modern human being with liberal leanings. I grew up in a socialist home. The world a bewildering place."
What did Tevye think of man and woman going through a divorce who might be able to live together or apart depending on their particular circumstances? (This is the central issue in the marriage of Davis currently before the California Supreme Court.)
"Not Tevye's world." This is the same answer to what would Tevye think of Mr. Moms, or fathers taking a more hands-on role in parenting? He is terse: "I made my choices."
What would Tevye think about the feminization of poverty and dead beat dads of the 70's and 80's. "He understood there was the distribution of roles."
In terms of courtship, I wanted to know Tevye's take on online dating? Is it the new digital yenta, or electronic match maker? What about 'sexting?'
His answer, "Good luck to them. Online dating is kind of a game that's manufactured by modern technology and life as we know it."
He told of a friend on J-date who set himself up with the woman he broke up with after many years together. "They laughed about it. There was no happy ending."
What about aging Baby Boomers not wanting to grow up? "A nation of Peter Pans? Tradition, tradition, we lived by the book that he didn't quite understand. We live by gadgets. They're all smarter than I am."
Finally I asked Tevye for his thoughts on Viagra or Cialis. "There are side effects to those drugs. It comes to me the other day that one of those side effects is sudden death and if conditions persist for more than 4 hours consult a doctor."
I am left wanting more. Perhaps there could be a pod cast with Bikel to continue this conversation? At least his music from the 1950's and 60's is now available on iTunes, including his version of the lullaby I grew up with, "Raisins With Almonds."
If Tevye continues to be a relatable mythic figure, this may be due to Theo being the fulfillment of his Yiddishe grandmother's wisdom that you can always do a little better. Bikel could be the 4th child in Fiddler on the Roof, the younger son to three older sisters, each who made their peace with tradition before him.