Talented folksinger and actor, Theodore Bikel (b. Vienna, Austria, 1924) has carved out his place in the modern entertainment industry as a renaissance man. For over fifty years, Bikel has impacted film, the stage, and the arts, from his supporting role in The African Queen in 1951, to his appearance at the 1960 Newport Folk Festival, to his appointment to the National Council for the Arts in 1977. Although he was born in Austria, he has lived in Israel, England, and the United States and speaks five languages. Bikel has recorded twenty albums in all, mostly for the Elektra label, and is also an accomplished translator of song lyrics, published in Folksongs & Footnotes,
Bikel’s family fled to Palestine in 1938, where they became British subjects. Bikel wanted to study language and become a teacher, so he worked at a communal farm to help pay expenses. Drawn to the theater, however, he left the farm in 1943 to study at the Hamimah Theater in Tel Aviv. Later, Bikel and four other actors formed the Tel Aviv Chamber Theater. In 1946, he left Israel to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. While in England, he also began to take a serious interest in folk music and learn the guitar. In 1947, Bikel’s acting skills were noticed by Sir Laurence Olivier, leading to a part in the London production of A Streetcar Named Desire.
By the early ’50s, Bikel began to play Russian officers and German sailors in English and American films, and in 1955 he moved to New York City. The move also coincided with the beginning of a career in folk music. He signed with Elektra Records, recorded Israeli Folk Songs in 1955, and made a concert debut at the Carnegie Recital Hall in 1956. He became a co-founder of the Newport Folk Festival and performed at the event in 1960. Bikel’s repertoire proved uniquely eclectic, including songs from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Israel. He played hundreds of dates in United States, from the Rainbow & Stars in New York to The Boarding House in San Francisco, and traveled broadly, performing in New Zealand, Australia, and throughout Europe.
Over the next forty years, Bikel continued his dual career in film and folk music. He received parts in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming in 1966, See You in the Morning in 1989, and Shadow Conspiracy in 1997. He recorded Songs of the Earth for Elektra in 1967, A New Day on Reprise in 1970, and A Taste of Passover for Rounder in 1998. Bikel also involved himself in a number of political activities. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Bikel to the National Council for the Arts, a position he retained until 1982. He has also served with the Associated Actors and Artists of America, Americans for the Arts, and as vice-president of the American Jewish Congress.
In 1992, Bikel received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Hartford.
– Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.