An emotional tour de force about the inevitability and universality of change
We go to the movies to have an emotional experience and see ourselves reflected on the screen, and though this week’s extraordinary classic “Fiddler on the Roof” is the story of a poor Jewish family in Czarist Russia, it provides both those things in full force. One of cinema’s greatest movie musicals, its songs and dances are driven by a profoundly universal narrative showcasing the jubilation and heartbreak of life. One of my favorite films, I’ve shown it to non-musical-loving moviegoers who always walk away overwhelmed with emotion and awed. It won three Academy Awards (out of eight nominations, including Best Picture), Pauline Kael of The New Yorker called it “the most powerful movie musical ever made”, and IndieWire named it the 14th Best Movie Musical of All Time – just a sampling of the countless accolades bestowed upon this internationally acclaimed gem.
Set around 1905, a time of political upheaval in Russia, “Fiddler on the Roof” (which I'll call "Fidder”) is the story of “Tevye”, a Jewish milkman with five daughters and a wife named “Golde” who live in a shtetl (a small predominantly Jewish town in Eastern Europe that existed before the Holocaust) named Anatevka. The story revolves around the marrying of his three eldest daughters, “Tzeitel”, “Hodel”, and “Chava”. A religious man guided by the traditions of his faith, as each of his daughters marry, “Tevye” finds himself confronted by a younger generation's desires in a changing world, and is pushed further and further away from the traditions that give his life meaning. It is ultimately a story about change, family, survival, and the human spirit. Exploding with energy, warm humor, and gripping drama woven with stirring songs, “Fiddler” is a highly-charged emotional ride from its opening, as “Tevye” leads the villagers in the rousing song “Tradition”, to its closing, as the townsfolk sing of their beloved beat-up town in the heartfelt “Anatevka”. Every time I watch this film I am moved (usually to tears).
The film was adapted from a blockbuster Broadway musical with the same name, which in turn was based on the collected short stories of Russian-born Yiddish/Hebrew writer Sholem Aleichem (Sholem Yakov Rabinowitz). The Tony Award-winning Broadway show opened in 1964 and was the first musical to have a continuous run of over 3,000 performances, becoming the longest-running Broadway show in history (a record it held for nearly ten years). Even so, turning it into a film was a risky proposition.
The mega success of the 1965 movie musical “The Sound of Music” spawned many more big-budgeted movie musicals, but with the rise of rock and roll, the end of the Motion Picture Production Code (see my “Red Dust” post), and audience’s changing tastes for more gritty realism, many of them lost money (such as "Star!", "Hello Dolly!", “Paint Your Wagon”, and "Doctor Dolittle”). So producing movie musicals had now become a huge financial risk. “Fiddler” also came with a worry that audiences would be further diminished because the story was “too Jewish”.
But United Artists (UA) took the plunge, bought the show rights, and approached Norman Jewison to direct the film version (Jewison had directed several hit films for them, including the Oscar-winning "In the Heat of the Night”). When they asked him to produce and direct “Fiddler”, he replied, “What would you say if I told you I wasn't Jewish?” (people always assumed he was Jewish because of his name), and UA's answer was that they wanted the film to have universal appeal. Knowing what a prestigious property it was, he felt honored to be asked to produce and direct, and later said the day he was offered "Fiddler" was one of the most exciting in his life.
Jewison was the perfect choice. He started directing on television, directing many musical shows including "The Andy Williams Show", Harry Belafonte and Danny Kaye musical specials, and most famously, "The Judy Garland Show”, which all taught him how to capture a musical performance for the screen. Aware of the differences between the broadness of theater and the intimacy of film, he knew the Broadway's folkloric "Fiddler" had to be altered for the screen and decided to ground it in reality. To prepare, he visited Israel and spent time around orthodox families and immersed himself in Judaism. He expanded the story onscreen with sweeping settings while fashioning a very personal story. Aware it was a family musical, Jewison ever so slightly deepened its reality by giving glimpses of life in a poor Russian village, antisemitism, the politics of the time, and the horror of pogroms (violence aimed at massacring or expelling an ethnic or religious group, particularly Jews). This also heightened the drama and emotion.
Jewison expertly uses cinema to tell the story. One example is how he shows “Tevye’s” confrontations with each daughter over her marriage. During their conversations, Jewison cuts to closeups of “Tevye” with his daughters seen far in the background, letting us know these are his private thoughts while letting us feel his alienation. It’s a brilliant, moving, and filmic way of highlighting “Tevye’s” inner conflict while advancing the narrative. This film stands on its own as a work of art apart from the Broadway version.
The care and love with which Jewison made “Fiddler” is evident all throughout, and earned him two Academy Award nominations – Best Director, and Best Picture (as producer). “Fiddler” was the first musical feature film he directed, and his next film would be his second and final movie musical, “Jesus Christ Superstar”, another enormous box-office hit. You can read more about the life and career of the very talented Norman Jewison in my post on “In the Heat of the Night”. Just click on the film title to open that post.
“Fiddler’s” songs are integral, and all but two from the Broadway show are in the film ("Now I Have Everything" and "The Rumor (I Just Heard"). The minor keys and Russian and Hungarian influences of Jerry Bock's music evoke an Old World European flavor while pulling on one’s heartstrings, and Sheldon Harnick's lyrics extend the story, such as when “Tevye” introduces us to his traditions singing “Tradition” on his milk delivery route, his eldest three daughters explain their fears and lack of control in picking a husband singing “Matchmaker” while folding laundry, or as “Tevye” and “Golde” sing “Sabbath Prayer”, ending with a beautiful montage of the entire village mirroring them, informing us of the strong united community of Anatekva. It’s an extraordinary use of magnificent songs.
Jewison employed music maestro John Williams to adapt, re-orchestrate, and conduct the songs and music to the expansive screen version. Like Jewison, Williams knew “Fiddler” was an incredibly beloved musical, and while keeping the core of the Broadway show intact, he took meticulous care in reshaping the songs, more than doubling the number of musicians in the orchestra, and tailoring each song to the specific performers who sang them. In addition, new music was needed for the opening credits, so Williams composed an evocative melody to be played by a fiddler standing on a roof. and world renown violinist Isaac Stern was enlisted to play it (an actor plays the fiddle to Stern's dubbed backtrack). Williams’ magnificently soulful compositions and lush orchestrations truly tug at one's heartstrings, and his gorgeous work earned him a Best Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score Academy Award – his first of five Oscar wins to date (out of 53 nominations). A composer also known for scoring many of the films of Steven Spielberg, you can read more about the imitable John Williams in my post on “The Poseidon Adventure”.
Jewison’s quest for reality was greatly helped by production designer Robert Boyle, who worked closely with him on the overall style of the film (which was influenced by the photographs of Russian-American photographer Roman Vishniac of pre-World War II Eastern European shtetls). “Fiddler” was shot largely on location (with a few scenes filmed at Pinewood Studios in London), and due to political issues at the time, Yugoslavia (now Croatia) was chosen.
While scouting locations, Boyle played recordings of the music in different locales until he found ones that felt right. The remote villages of Mala Gorica, Lekenik, and Zagreb (largely unchanged since the early 1900’s) were chosen, and the fictitious town of Anatevka was built in a village square alongside existing buildings made out of wood from nearby dilapidated houses. “Tevye’s” farm was built, and animals were brought to live and roam on the set (often heard in the background). No Eastern European synagogues from that period still existed, so Boyle designed and built one based on records. The art direction is truly wondrous, and transports one to another place and time. For his outstanding work, Robert Boyle (along with Michael Stringer and Peter Lamont) earned a Best Art Direction-Set Decoration Oscar nomination. You can read more about the gifted Robert Boyle in my post on “North by Northwest”.
To further aid in bringing about an Old World feel, Jewison wanted the film to have a faded look devoid of bright colors. Cinematographer Oswald Morris noticed that everything was brown in the villages where they shot (the dirt, buildings, clothes), which drove his color palette, and he came up with the idea of putting a nylon stocking over the lens to aid in achieving a faded, sepia feel. The film takes place through all four seasons, and his luscious photography with candlelit scenes, sunrises, sun-drenched fields, and bleak town squares earned Morris a Best Cinematography Academy Award.
English-born cinematographer Oswald Morris had already earned a reputation as an innovator for his effects with fog, diffused light, and colors in 1952's "Moulin Rouge", and capturing muted colors in 1965's "Moby Dick". He began his career assisting such acclaimed directors as Michael Powell and David Lean before working as a director of photography for the 1950 Ronald Neame film "Golden Salamander". Morris had a luminous career as one of cinema's top cinematographers, he photographed many other classics including "A Farewell to Arms", "Beat the Devil", "Lolita", "Scrooge", "The Man with the Golden Gun", "Equus", "Look Back in Anger", and his final, 1982’s “The Dark Crystal". In addition to his win for "Fiddler", he was nominated for two other Oscars ("Oliver!" and "The Wiz"), and won three Best British Cinematography BAFTA Awards ("The Pumpkin Eater", "The Hill", "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold") with six nominations. In 1997, he was awarded a BAFTA Fellowship for his outstanding body of work. He was married and widowed twice. Oswald Morris died in 2014 at the age of 98.
One of Jewison's major concerns was casting. Having the right actors was vital to the film's success, most importantly the casting of “Tevye”. Larger-than-life comedic actor Zero Mostel became a Tony Award-winning Broadway sensation creating the role, and Jewison was being pressured to cast him. But he felt Mostel's style was too big and comedic for his movie. Others vied for the role such as Danny Kaye, Rod Steiger, and even Frank Sinatra, but Jewison was hoping to find a second or third generation Eastern European Jewish actor. Someone mentioned Israeli actor Topol was appearing as “Tevye” in the London production, so Jewison went to see him. From the moment Topol appeared on stage, Jewison knew he found his “Tevye”. Topol seemed to embody a universal European Jew, much closer to the reality of the character in Aleichem’s stories.
Topol’s monumental performance as “Tevye” is a major factor as to why this film is so affecting. As a man continually asked to deny everything he believes in, “Tevye” experiences the gamut of human emotions and Topol rings true at every turn. We first meet him as he talks directly to us, explaining the significance of the fiddler on the roof and his all-encompassing traditions. And it’s because of Topol’s intimate warmth, charm, and engaging nature that we instantly identify with “Tevye”. He is strong willed yet compassionate with a very infectious sense of humor. It’s a deeply moving tour de force which justly made Topol an international star for life. It also earned him a Best Actor Academy Award nomination and won him a Best Actor Golden Globe.
Israeli-born Chaim Topol (he dropped “Chaim” for his stage name) was the son of Eastern European Jews who fled a shtetl and settled in Palestine in the early 1930s. He began his career by chance – overheard telling jokes while in the Israeli army and then placed in an army entertainment unit, acting and singing in a traveling theatrical troupe for the next few years. Once discharged, he lived on a kibbutz where he helped form a theatrical group, and later founded the Haifa Municipal Theater. In 1961, he began appearing in Israeli films starting with "I Like Mike". His breakthrough came starring in his third film, "Sallah", which was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, earned him a Most Promising Newcomer Golden Globe Award, and gave him exposure outside of Israel. His English-speaking film debut was in the 1966 Kirk Douglas film "Cast a Giant Shadow". He then played "Tevye" for the first time in the Israeli stage production of “Fiddler”. His appearance in "Sallah" led to him being cast as "Tevye" in the London production of “Fiddler", which is where Jewison spotted him for the film. Topol was thirty-five years old at the time of filming and underwent two hours of makeup each day to look older, including giving him wrinkles, padding, and adding fifteen white hairs to his eyebrows (seven on one side and eight on the other) cut from Jewison's beard.
His fiery performance in this worldwide hit made Topol Israel’s first international movie star, and forever associated him with "Tevye" and “Fiddler”. In the course of his life, he appeared in the role in more than 3,500 stage performances all over the world between 1967 and 2009, including a 1989 US touring production and the 1990 Broadway revival. When asked about his career-defining role in a 2015 interview for Haaretz, Topol said, "How many people are known for one part? How many people in my profession are known worldwide? So I am not complaining, Sometimes I am surprised when I come to China or when I come to Tokyo or when I come to France or when I come wherever and the clerk at the immigration says 'Topol, Topol, are you Topol?' So yes many people saw it [“Fiddler”] and it is not a bad thing”.
But Topol didn't only appear in “Fiddler". He's appeared in additional stage productions and dozens of films and television shows including the films "For Your Eyes Only", "Flash Gordon", "Galileo", "Before Winter Comes", "Left Luggage”, the TV shows "The Winds of War", "War and Remembrance", and "Sea Quest". He also provided voices for the dubbed Hebrew-language versions of "The Jungle Book” (as “Bagheera”) and the first two "Harry Potter" films (as "Rubeus Hagrid”). Several film and TV documentaries were made about him, including the 2011 Israeli TV documentary, "Chaim Topol – Life as a Film". He recorded several albums, authored books (including his 1981 autobiography, "Topol"), illustrated over two dozen books, and produced drawings of Israeli national figures which were later used for a 2013 Israeli postage stamp series. In 1967, he founded "Variety Israel” to help children with special needs, and in 2012 cofounded "Jordan River Village" for Arab and Jewish children with life-threatening illnesses. Among his many awards, Topol received the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement (Israel’s highest cultural honor). In 1956, he married fellow kibbutz actress Galia Finkelstein, remaining so until his death. Topol died recently, on March 8, 2023 at the age of 87. After his death, his family claimed he was a secret agent for Mossad (the national intelligence agency of Israel). You can read more about that HERE.
A fun tidbit about “Tevye’s” horse: Jewison came upon this old horse about to be sent to a glue factory and thought it was very sweet, had a weariness, and its own personality that was right for the film. So he made a deal with the farmer to use the horse in the film. Everyone fell in love with the horse, and there was a strong instant connection between it and Topol. The horse was not trained, but because of its bond with Topol, you’ll notice that when Topol stops walking, the horse stops walking. And when Topol starts to walk, the horse starts to walk. After filming ended, the production paid the farmer to keep the horse from being killed at the glue factory, and it evidently lived out the rest of its life on a farm.
Not only was Topol unknown to movie audiences at the time, but no movie stars were cast in the film. So instead of glamorous, romanticized characters, the actors look and sound like real people, again reinforcing that real feel. A few international dancers and character actors were hired for minor parts, mixed with locals. For the main cast, actors were carefully picked by Jewison, and that included Norma Crane as “Tevye’s” wife, “Golde”.
“Golde” is from an era when a woman’s only role was to marry, bear children, and take care of the home and family, and Crane makes us believe this woman can do all of that. She is tough, superstitious, takes life as it comes, and will fight for her daughters when needed. Her banter with “Tevye” is wholly entertaining, turning their duet “Do You Love Me?”, into a poignant statement about each of their lives. Like most of the major cast, Crane’s character is given a spectrum of emotions (putting up with “Yente” the matchmaker’s shenanigans, frightened by “Tevye’s” nightmare, heartbroken over “Chava”), and she fits the bill each time while maintaining a quiet strength at the core of “Golde”.
New York City born Norma Crane grew up and studied acting in Texas before heading back to New York to study with Elia Kazan at the Actors Studio. Her Broadway debut was in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible” and she began appearing on television in a 1951 episode of "The Clock”. She worked extensively on TV for the rest of her career, and her sixty plus TV appearances include recurring roles on "Gunsmoke", "The Flying Nun", "The F.B.I.", "The Untouchables", and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents". She acted in six films, including "The Call Me Mister Tibbs!", "Penelope", and "Tea and Sympathy", and is best remembered for “Fiddler" (her final film). She was married and divorced once, to writer Herbert Sargent. Sadly, Norma Crane died of breast cancer in 1973 at the age of 44, just two years after "Fiddler's" release. She was very close friends with Natalie Wood, who reportedly paid her medical bills and funeral costs.
Leonard Frey plays “Motel Kamzoil”, the poor, meek tailor in love with “Tzeitel”. Frey does a superb job at bringing many shades to the character, such as nervousness around “Tevye”, tenderness around “Tzeitel”, and an exuberance singing "Miracle of Miracles”. His portrayal of this man who “becomes a person” earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination.
Brooklyn-born Leonard Frey originally set out on an art career, switching to acting and studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse with Sanford Meisner. He began appearing Off-Broadway, and made his first film appearance in 1963’s "The Fat Black Pussycat". His Broadway debut came playing the Rabbi's son, "Mendel" in the original 1964 Broadway production of “Fiddler”. Frey’s first big break came as "Harold" in the original Off-Broadway production of "The Boys in the Band", and he reprised the role in the 1970 film version. The film version of "Fiddler" came shortly after, and Frey continued working in film, TV, and theater (and even acted in several operas with Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland), often in comedic roles, until his untimely death. He earned a Tony Award nomination for the 1975’s "The National Health", appeared in ten films, others of which include "Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon", "Up the Academy", and "Tattoo", and about two dozen TV shows including "Moonlighting", "Hart to Hart", "Barney Miller", "Murder, She Wrote", and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show". He was gay and never married. Leonard Frey died from complications from AIDS in 1988 at the age of 49.
Molly Picon plays “Yente” the matchmaker. In Jewish slang, yenta means a busybody gossip, and the nosy, complaining, and gossip-loving “Yente” lives up to her name and Picon brings her to life with much humor. I love how she tell’s “Golde”: “Even the worst husband, God forbid, is better than no husband, God forbid”, and how she takes all the cookies on the plate and puts them in her bag. Picon is so much fun to watch.
Born in New York City to Polish-Jewish immigrants, Molly Picon moved with her family to Philadelphia at the age of three, where her mother worked as a seamstress for a Yiddish theater. Starting at the age of five, Picon began performing in theaters, nightclubs, and amateur nights, and left high school to become a full-time vaudevillian. In 1919, she married Yiddish theater director and producer Jacob Kalich, and the two headed to Europe so she could perfect her Yiddish. Kalich wrote skits for her and she performed across Europe to rave reviews. They returned to New York, where Kalich continued writing plays for her, and by the early 1920's, Picon starred in over 200 Yiddish productions and became a major star of the Yiddish Theater (often playing girls masquerading as boys). Her popularity was such that many shows put her name (“Molly”) in their title, and in 1931, she opened her own Molly Picon Theatre. She also had her own radio show in 1934.
The 1921 Austrian Yiddish film "Das Judenmädel” was Picon’s film debut, and she continued to work in films sporadically though the 1940s while working on stage. Appearing in more English-speaking plays, she debuted on Broadway in 1940's, “Morning Star", and earned a Best Actress Tony Award nomination for 1961's "Milk and Honey". A true Yiddish theater legend and icon, Picon was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981. Acting in just over two dozen film and TV shows, her other films include "Yidl Mitn Fidl", "The Naked City", "Come Blow Your Horn", "For Pete's Sake", "The Cannonball Run", and her final, "Cannonball Run II". Her TV show credits include "Dr. Kildare", "Gomer Pyle: USMC", "Trapper John, M.D.", and as "Grandma Mona" on "The Facts of Life". She earned a Daytime Emmy Award nomination for her final appearance, on a 1984 episode of "Young People's Specials". Picon continued performing in one-woman stage shows until a few years before her death. She remained married to Kalich until his death in 1975. Molly Picon died in 1992 at the age of 94.
Rosalind Harris plays “Tzeitel”, “Tevye’s” oldest daughter about to be married off, and Harris does a wonderful job capturing the hopefulness and angst of the character. She has many wonderful moments, including her interplay with “Motel” before the “Sabbath Prayer” song, when confronting “Tevye” about her marriage, and while singing “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” with the equally talented actresses playing her sisters.
When the film version of “Fiddler” was being cast, Rosalind Harris was understudying then unknown actress Bette Midler in the part of “Tzeitel" in "Fiddler's" Broadway production. Midler asked Harris if she was auditioning for the film version (Midler auditioned but they didn’t want her), which Harris knew nothing about. Midler told her, “Get your ass down there”. She did and ended up with the part (but not before replacing Milder on Broadway). This was Harris’ first film. Nearly twenty years later, Harris played “Golde” in the national stage tour of “Fiddler” opposite Topol, who starred as “Tevye”. She’s had an extensive career in theater (particularly musicals), in shows such as "Major Barbara", "Gypsy", "Do I Hear a Waltz?", "The Rise of David Levinsky", "MisSpelled", and ten productions of "Funny Girl". She’s also appeared in Woody Allen's 1983 film "Zelig", and played Fanny Brice in Francis Ford Coppola's 1984 film "The Cotton Club". Her last screen appearance to date was in the 1996 TV movie "Mrs. Santa Claus”. As of the writing of this post, Rosalind Harris is 76 years old.
One last actor I must mention is Paul Michael Glaser (credited as Paul Glaser) who plays “Perchik", the Bolshevik revolutionary. A student from Kiev, this character represents the outside changing world and the breaking down of traditions, and Glaser plays him just radical enough and likable enough for “Tevye” to be intrigued and not opposed to him. Glaser had blue eyes, and Jewison insisted he wear dark colored contact lenses.
Massachusetts-born Paul Michael Glaser majored in theater and English in college and got a master's in acting and directing from Boston University. His Broadway debut was in 1969's "The Man in the Glass Booth”, followed by a role in "Butterflies Are Free". He began appearing on television in 1967 with recurring roles in "The Doctors" and "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing". "Fiddler" was his first film, and because of all the waiting around between shots he decided film wasn't for him, so most of his career was spent on TV and stage. Shortly after “Fiddler" he made his way to Los Angeles, and after appearances on shows such as "The Streets of San Francisco", "The Waltons", "Kojak", and "The Rockford Files”, he landed a starring role as "Dave Starsky" in the classic TV series "Starsky and Hutch". It was a major hit, running from 1975 to 1978 and made him and his costar David Soul household names. It was at this point Glaser also began directing, including five episodes in the series.
Though working steadily on TV, he made a few films, including "Phobia", "Something's Gotta Give", and a brief cameo in the 2004 film version of “Starsky & Hutch”. Other TV work includes "Third Watch", "Criminal Minds", "The Mentalist", "Grace and Frankie", and most recently, four episodes of "Ray Donovan". He's amassed over twenty directing credits, including TV episodes of "Judging Amy”, "Las Vegas", and "Miami Vice” (which earned him a Best Director Emmy Award nomination), and the feature films "The Air Up There" starring Keven Bacon and "The Running Man" starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was married twice. His first wife, Elizabeth, contracted AIDS while giving birth to their daughter Ariel through a blood transfusion. They didn't realize it until both mother and daughter became ill. Ariel died from AIDS complications when she was seven and Elizabeth launched the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation before her death in 1994. Glaser later remarried, which ended in divorce. As of the writing of this post, Paul Michael Glaser is 80 years old.
“Fiddler” was originally released in 70mm with 6-track stereo sound, and with its running time of 3 hours, was shown with an intermission and entr'acte music, and programs were given out to the audience. It was a movie event. The film had international appeal and was especially enormous in Japan, for the Japanese felt it was a very Japanese story.
In addition to the wins for Best Cinematography and Best Musical Score, “Fiddler” also won an Academy Award for Best Sound (Gordon K. McCallum and David Hildyard).
Be prepared to get lost in a far away time and place with stirring music, an array of touching performances, and to be deeply moved. I truly hope you watch this film. Enjoy a true masterpiece and film I love. Enjoy “Fiddler on the Roof”!
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