The actor known by just his last name - Topol - first played the part of Tevye the Milkman in "Fiddler on the Roof" in Tel Aviv in 1966, when he was 30 years old. Some 44 years later, he will play Tevye for the twenty-seven-hundred-and-somethingth time when he opens Tuesday at the Hippodrome Theatre in what is being billed as his farewell tour.
"I stopped counting after I reached 2,500 performances," Topol says over the phone. "This is one of the five best parts ever written for a male actor-singer. It's a joy to be in the show and to wear Tevye's boots."
Though the actor has performed other roles before and since - Zorba the Greek might or might not be in his future - Topol's professional career has been defined by the role of the impoverished Jewish dairyman who has long, philosophical chats with his Maker.
The extent to which Topol has become identified with Tevye is even more startling when you consider that it was the great comic actor Zero Mostel, and not Topol himself, who originated the role on Broadway in 1964. The inaugural production of "Fiddler" was a huge hit, and was the first Broadway show to run for more than 3,000 performances. Mostel's performance won raves and a Tony Award.
When the stage show was turned into a film in 1971, theater insiders assumed that Mostel would reprise the role on the big screen. But the comic genius had a reputation for improvising his lines, leaving his fellow actors adrift. Instead, the producers and director opted for a young, little-known Israeli actor who had been cast as Tevye on London's West End.
"The producers had seen a film called 'Shallah Sabati' in which I had played an old man," Topol says. "They called me in, expecting to see an elderly guy. When I came to the theater, they felt they had made a mistake. But I was already there, so they let me audition."
In that production, Topol was about the same age as the actresses portraying his daughters. His relative youthfulness also was an issue when it came time to shoot the film.
"We were concerned that I would look too young," he says.
"When you're on stage, OK, you can put on makeup and look a little older. But, the camera comes very near your face for a close-up, so you really have to look convincing. I used to do a 2 1/2 -hour makeup session every morning. Because I didn't have any gray hair, the make-up man sacrificed some gray hairs from his beard and glued them into my eyebrows.
"And you know what? I'm 74 now, and when I look at my eyebrows, I still don't see even one white hair."
As the 20th century aged, so, of course, did Topol. During the 1971 film, an actress named Rosalind Harris was cast as Tevye's daughter, Tzeitel. Ten years later, Topol and Harris performed on tour together as the milkman and his wife, Golde.
But whispers that Topol might be getting too old to play Tevye didn't start for another two decades.
"Am I too old now for Tevye?" he says. "I don't know. I can tell you one thing, it was a very difficult role to play when I was 30. Eight shows a week is a heavy load, and my character is on stage for almost the whole show. It's a wonderful part, but demanding."
But the actor has long perfected a disciplined off-stage lifestyle. He does a 3-mile jog/walk five days a week. Before each opening curtain, he warms up his vocal cords for 45 minutes, and his muscles for an additional 30.
"I try to sleep at least eight hours a night," he says. "I limit phone calls to a minimum, because they're the enemy of the vocal cords. I try not to go out at night, even when I have very important guests. I don't drink and I don't smoke."
The voice of the actor's wife can be heard in the background, interjecting a comment. Topol laughs and says, "My wife just said that there's something else I don't do, but I won't repeat it."
There was a recent spate of negative publicity when the actor missed five performances during a monthlong stop in Los Angeles after falling ill with a bug. The cancellations resulted in speculation on some online Web sites that the 74-year-old no longer has the stamina to perform both a matinee and evening shows on the same day.
When a star falls ill, it disappoints patrons and can result in a financial loss for the venue presenting the show. If an understudy steps in for a top-billed performer, the theater has to issue refunds to patrons who request them.
Hippodrome officials say they aren't concerned about a similar situation arising in Baltimore. They point out that the actor has performed in 209 performances on the current tour, and missed a total of six, though five were in the same city.
"It was unfortunate, but it was just a one-time thing," Topol says.
He wavers when asked if this really is his farewell tour.
He says he's busy with other projects. A film is in the works, though the actor is mum about the details. In addition, the actor is building a holiday camp in Israel for children stricken with fatal diseases. It's scheduled to open in April.
Still, as the musical's best-known song puts it, swiftly flow the years. It's not easy for Topol to say goodbye to an old friend as faithful and rewarding as the milkman has been. The actor has previously tried to step out of Tevye's boots, only to tighten the laces once again.
"I never said this was going to be my last tour," Topol says. "The producers said it, and they're probably right. But, if someone comes along with an excellent offer when I'm 80 and asks me to do it again, who knows?"
If you go
"Fiddler on the Roof" runs Tuesday through Nov. 1 at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St. Show times are 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets cost $20-$67. Call 410-547-7328 or go to france-merrickpac.com.