On our world tour of Fiddler on the Roof and occasionally off-beat performances, we return to the home ground and as down-to-earth a performance as you'll get.
When Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway, it was a particular triumph for Zero Mostel who gave a scene-chewing, embrace the world performance. (I saw him revive the show years later in Los Angeles, and though he was known in to sometimes get bored and sleep-walk through the show, he didn't then, and was wonderful.) His acclaim was such that it was assumed the show's success was due to him, and would close after he left It, of course, was still running many years later when the unknown Harry Goz took over the role.
But when Mostel left, the show's long-running success (and subsequent fame) was still a question mark, when his replacement took over. That was a wonderful actor by the name of Herschel Bernardi.
Herschel Bernardi had a long, admired career, usually as a supporting actor, though he did get to star in a TV series, Arnie. He's also probably best known for, of all things, just his voice -- he was the voice of Charlie the Tuna in the Star Kist ads. That voice you still hear isn't Bernardi's who passed away in 1986, but it's a impersonation of him to sound the same. And he was also the original voice of the Jolly Green Giant.
Bernardi did a lot of TV and movies, most notably beside the above, in Peter Gunn, which got him a supporting Emmy nomination, and also the great movie, The Front, playing a harassed TV producer during the days of blacklisting. He was one of the many actors in that film who had been blacklisted.
He also starred on Broadway in the fairly unsuccessful, but terrific musical Zorba, by Kander & Ebb. Oddly, one of the big (unjustified) complaints about the show was that it had too much in common with Fiddler on the Roof. It didn't, but the fact that a former Tevye (Bernardi) starred as Zorba, and it also featured Maria Karnilova, who'd been the original Golde in Fiddler on the Roof didn't help the wrong impression. And Bernardi got lost again with a role when years later the show got revived with Anthony Quinn re-creating his film role as Zorba (with Lila Kedrova re-creating her film role, and the whole production directed by Michael Cacoyanis, who -- yes, you guessed it -- had directed the original film). As a result, the musical of Zorba is now most remembered for the Anthony Quinn revival (which I also saw in Los Angeles, and loved...), rather than the Herschel Bernardi Broadway original. I listen to both cast albums, and they're both terrific, though for completely different reasons. Bernardi can sing wonderful, Quinn can't sing a lick -- but boy, howdy, can he play Zorba, and brings a musical sense to his characterization.
And Bernardi s not remembered for Fiddler on the Roof either, of course. That's rightly Zero Mostel. Bernardi did release an album of the show's songs, having of course missed out on the original cast recording.
Happily, there's one video of Herschel Bernardi in Fiddler on the Roof. (Unhappily, there's just one.) It's him singing "If I Were a Rich Man" and he's...well, he's great. Just absolutely great. It may even be my favorite performance of the number. It's human, outgoing, personal, funny and religious. When he goes into Tevye's chant, it's an enthralling moment. The video quality is faded, but everything else is vibrant. I've spoken to people who saw Hershel Bernardi on stage in the role, and they've said he was every bit as wonderful as he is in this. My only real complaint with the video is that it cuts off while he's singing the last word, so we don't get to hear the audience cheering.
In lieu of that, I offer my own cheering here.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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