Chaim Topol, or just Topol, as he was known professionally, passed away this week from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease . His career spanned seven decades and he conquered film, television, stage and even musical recordings. He is most closely associated with the role of “Tevye the Dairyman,” the main character in the 1971 musical Fiddler on the Roof. He had previously played the part on the stage where he impressed the film’s director Norman Jewison so much he was cast almost immediately. Topol was featured in a number of other films, including Cast a Giant Shadow with Kirk Douglas and For Your Eyes Only, a 1981 entry in the James Bond canon. He also co-starred in the ill-conceived science-fiction film Flash Gordon in 1980. It was a feeble attempt to capitalize on the “sci-fi” craze started by Star Wars several years earlier. The film was a loving tribute to the Saturday matinee serials starring Buster Crabbe and managed to land acclaimed actor Max Von Sydow as the villainous “Ming the Merciless,” an alien with obvious Asian leanings. This fared well in Flash Gordon’s original run in the 1940s when the United States was at war with Japan, but in the 80s (and especially today) the character is overtly racist. The film’s soundtrack was composed and performed by British superstars Queen and spawned a radio-friendly single to boot. And in the middle of this mess was Topol, as the brilliant scientist “Dr. Hans Zarkov,” doing his best to bring some dignity to an otherwise dismal production.
When I used to frequent collector and autograph shows, I met Sam J. Jones, the strapping star of Flash Gordon. Jones, like most actors in his category, has relegated himself to appearing at fan conventions where he happily signs photos and mingles with the legions of nostalgia aficionados, enamored by a role he played decades earlier. When I attended these shows, I liked to engage the celebrities in conversation rather than just gush “Oh, I loved your movie!” When I approached the still-imposing Sam J. Jones, now a little older and far less blond than when he appeared as the intergalactic hero, I asked him what it was like to work with Topol. Sam’s face lit up. He chuckled and explained that Topol was a blast! He said that between takes and on downtime on the set, Topol would sing for the cast and crew and encouraged everyone to join in. He went on to say that Topol made the sometimes grueling process of filming a movie a true pleasure. He was always cheerful and gregarious and made everyone feel like a friend.
I was very happy to hear that. That’s the Topol I want to remember.