Chaim Topol (1935-2023)
9th March 2023
The charismatic actor who played Columbo has died aged 87
Chaim Topol, the charismatic Israeli actor, and singer, who played Greek smuggler Milos Columbo in 'For Your Eyes Only' has died at the age of 87. The news was confirmed by Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, who described him as a “gifted actor who conquered many stages in Israel and overseas, filled the cinema screens with his presence, and especially entered deep into our hearts.”
While Topol will indelibly be known for his stage and screen portrayal of Tevye the milkman, in the musical ‘Fiddler On The Roof’, the James Bond world will remember his appearance in 'For Your Eyes Only' with equal regard. In 2017, he told Matthew Field and Ajay Chowdhury, “For me, it is certainly the second most important production I did.”
Known to audiences simply as Topol, he was born in Tel Aviv in 1935. At the age of 18, he joined the Israeli army where he became involved in the entertainment troupe, singing and acting. Even after he found fame and fortune, Topol continued to serve for 42 days each year in the Israeli army until age made him ineligible. He joined the Six Day War of 1967 and was drafted again during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when he served as a liaison officer in the Golan Heights.
Following his military service, Topol performed around Israel in a kibbutz theatre group. A major breakthrough was his casting as a Middle Eastern immigrant struggling to fend for his family in the movie, ‘Sallah Shabati’ (1964). It was a huge hit locally and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. Topol, then 29, won a Golden Globe for most promising male newcomer. Two years later, he made his English language feature film debut opposite Kirk Douglas in ‘Cast A Giant Shadow’ (1966).
His performance in ‘Sallah Shabati’ caught the eye of Broadway producer Hal Prince, who invited Topol to take over the role of Tevye in Israel’s production of ‘Fiddler On the Roof’. He initially declined but replaced his former teacher when he fell ill.
In 1967, Topol was offered the chance to play in the West End production of ‘Fiddler’ where it ran at Her Majesty’s Theatre for four years. Although Topol could hardly speak a word of English then, he learned the script parrot fashion. The producers found it difficult to pronounce the name Chaim and, with his permission, omitted it from the playbill.
In the West End, Topol became a star, with big names queuing up to meet him. “Two or three months in, the manager said, ‘Oh Roger Moore is here.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry but I never heard of you.’ Roger wasn’t insulted, he was smiling and laughing. We became very good friends. We laughed about that for years after.” Film director Norman Jewison, cast him in the 1971 big screen adaptation. Topol’s performance won him a second Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination. He continued to play Tevye in the West End, Broadway and around the world sporadically for many years after. Topol estimated that before he took his final bow in 2009, he starred in the production more than 3,500 times. Few singers owned one role quite so iconically.
In 1980, Dana Broccoli met Topol at a Fourth of July party in London and suggested him to Cubby Broccoli who was then casting the twelfth James Bond movie. He was promptly cast as the mysterious Columbo, a character based on Enrico Colombo who had appeared in Ian Fleming’s short story, ‘Risico.’ “I remember the first day on the set of ‘For Your Eyes Only’, Roger came to see me in the make-up room. They were ageing me a little bit. They didn’t want me to look younger than him. Roger remarked, ‘Oh they have to whiten your hair, so I look a little bit younger!’”
Throughout the film, Columbo can be seen snacking on pistachio nuts. This was a character trait suggested by Topol himself who felt it added to the Mediterranean mystique. For the action sequence inside the Albanian warehouse, Topol told Field and Chowdhury, that it was he, who put forward the idea to use the nuts to ensnare the villains, “After one or two rehearsals I said to the director, ‘Listen, why don’t we trap them? If I throw pistachios on the floor, when they step on them, we will know where they are.’ John Glen looked at Roger, ‘What a good idea!’ Roger told Cubby and Cubby gave me a cheque! And that is what we did. I was very proud of it.” During this same action sequence, Topol was injured when flying shrapnel hit him in the eye, “Blank bullets proved to be not quite so blank. Lots of blood comes down and it wasn’t makeup! Cubby was on the set and grabbed me, didn’t wait for the director to say ‘Print’ and he ran with me to the doctor.”
Looking back on ‘For Your Eyes Only’ Topol admitted, “I don’t watch my films, I saw it once, or twice the most. [But] it was a joy to work with Roger and with Cubby. It was an atmosphere that is rare on films. Appreciation was strong on that film.” Via his work in the theatre, Topol also knew former Bond producer, Harry Saltzman, who by the early 1980s was running the theatrical company, H. M Tennent. It was Topol who engineered Broccoli and Saltzman’s reunion at the premiere of ‘For Your Eyes Only,’ “I tried to make peace between the two. It was a very touching moment.”
Other notable appearances included his portrayal of famed Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei in ‘Galileo’ (1975) and the cult sci-fi classic, ‘Flash Gordon’ (1980) in which he appeared opposite Timothy Dalton. His final feature credit was the 1998 film, ‘Left Luggage’ directed by ‘The Living Daylight’s’ Jeroen Krabbé. In the Hebrew-language version of ‘The Jungle Book’ (1967) Topol dubbed the voice of Bagheera as well as Rubeus Hagrid in the first two Harry Potter films.
Away from showbiz, he formed a holiday home for Arab and Jewish children with incurable illnesses. “It’s the most important thing that I have ever done. All the rest is little episodes.” In 2015 Topol received the prestigious Israel Prize for lifetime achievement, the country’s most prestigious honour. Accepting the award he said, “I wasn’t brought up in Hollywood. I was brought up in a kibbutz. 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?’”
Chaim Topol died March 8th, 2023, and is survived by his wife Galia, and their three children Omer, Adi, and Anat.
With thanks to Ajay Chowdhury