Theodore Bikel, a prodigiously versatile actor and singer who created the role of Captain von Trapp in the original Broadway production of “The Sound of Music,” played Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” more than 2,000 times and recorded dozens of albums as a folk singer, died July 21 at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 91.
His death was confirmed by his agent, Robert Malcolm. The cause was not disclosed.
In a career of almost 70 years, the Austrian-born Mr. Bikel was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor in “The Defiant Ones,” a 1958 film starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as escaped prisoners in the South.
Before he was cast, Mr. Bikel protested to the director, Stanley Kramer, that he was neither Southern nor American. “A good actor is a good actor,” Kramer told him.
Mr. Bikel, who could speak nine languages and sing in 21, had a parallel career as a folk singer and social advocate. In 1959, he helped found the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island.
In a protean acting career, he played King Lear and other Shakespearean roles and appeared in countless television shows, from “The Twilight Zone” to “Gunsmoke” to “Dynasty.” At various times, he portrayed characters who were Chinese, Scottish, Scottish, Czech, Jewish, Hungarian, Greek or Indian. He played a Hungarian linguist in “My Fair Lady” (1964) and a Soviet submarine captain in “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” (1966).
In any dialect, he was a consummate raconteur who seemed to have known everyone from Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to musicians Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa.
In 1949, Mr. Bikel was appearing in a supporting role in a London stage production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” directed by Laurence Olivier. After film director John Huston saw the play, he approached Mr. Bikel.
“He was backstage chatting and in his dry manner called me over and said, ‘Let me ask you a question,’ ” Mr. Bikel told the Los Angeles Times in 2014. “ ‘Could you do a German accent?’ I said, ‘Could I do a German accent? I think I could lay my hands on more than just one German accent.’ He said, ‘Okay. You’re on. Report next Monday.’ That’s how I got the role.”
The role was as a German sailor in “The African Queen” (1951), starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. It was Mr. Bikel’s first film. During slow times on the set, he played chess with Bogart. (Bogart won.)
After coming to the United States in 1954, Mr. Bikel appeared in several Broadway plays, including the dark family drama “The Rope Dancers,” for which he received a Tony nomination in 1958, playing a doctor.
The next year, Mr. Bikel originated the role of von Trapp in the Broadway production of “The Sound of Music,” for which he received another Tony nomination. The musical’s composers, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, wrote the song “Edelweiss” for Mr. Bikel, already a renowned folk singer.
Christopher Plummer played the role in the film version of “The Sound of Music,” which won an Oscar for best picture.
Later, Mr. Bikel appeared in Zappa’s 1971 film “200 Motels,” about the life of a rock band on the road. He portrayed Henry Kissinger in a 1989 ABC mini-series production of “The Final Days” by journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
In 2005, Mr. Bikel played a 13th-century Spanish rabbi in Hyam Maccoby’s “The Disputation” at Washington’s Theater J. Director Nick Olcott quickly learned to schedule extra rehearsal time to allow time for Mr. Bikel to tell stories.
“We basically set aside a half an hour of rehearsal every day,” Olcott told The Washington Post. “He had more jokes on file than anyone I’ve ever met.”
Theodor Meir Bikel was born May 2, 1924, in Vienna, where his father was in the insurance business. Mr. Bikel, who was Jewish, recalled seeing Adolf Hitler in a parade in 1938, months before his family fled Austria with three suitcases.
They moved to what was then the British mandate of Palestine, where Mr. Bikel lived on a kibbutz and began acting in Hebrew productions. In 1946, he went to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
Mr. Bikel, who became a U.S. citizen in 1961, participated in voter registration drives in Mississippi during the civil rights movement. In 1986, he was arrested outside the Soviet Embassy in Washington during a protest over Soviet treatment of Jewish citizens.
“There’s an old Talmudic saying that it is not given to us to complete the task, but none of us may desist from undertaking it,” Mr. Bikel said in 2006. “That’s my take on politics: I don’t know if the battles are winnable, but I know that I have to help wage them.”
He was appointed in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter to the National Council for the Arts. He was also a senior vice president of the American Jewish Congress, a board member of Amnesty International and, from 1973 to 1982, president of Actors Equity. He wrote an autobiography, “Theo,” in 1994.
His marriages to Ofra Ichilov and Rita Weinberg Call ended in divorce. His third wife, conductor Tamara Brooks, died in 2012. Survivors include his wife since 2013, Aimee Ginsburg Bikel of Los Angeles; two sons from his second marriage; two stepsons; and three grandchildren.
Several years ago, Mr. Bikel co-wrote and starred in a one-man play about Sholom Aleichem, the Yiddish writer whose tales formed the basis of “Fiddler on the Roof.” He recently completed a documentary film about Aleichem.
In his 2,200 performances as Tevye, Aleichem’s most beloved character, Mr. Bikel said he drew on memories of his grandfather.
“He was in his 60s, I was about 14, and he made a lasting impression,” Mr. Bikel told the Boston Globe in 2014. “He was observant, pious, irreverent, contradictory, irascible.”
At one point, like Tevye, Mr. Bikel’s grandfather seemed to curse his fate and stopped attending religious services.
“When we saw him next, he was huddling under his prayer shawl,” Mr. Bikel recalled, “calling out in Hebrew. All of us were shocked, confounded. I remember him looking up at me, shaking his head, saying with a shrug, ‘So maybe it’ll help a little, so who knows?’ ”