Things have come full circle for Paul Michael Glaser. As a young actor in the 1960s Glaser was appearing in a play in a New York theatre next door to where Fiddler on the Roof was playing. Glaser happened to be dating one of the Fiddler on the Roof cast, and each night once his show finished would race next door and watch the last five minutes of her show.
A few years later, Glaser's first film role came in Norman Jewison's 1971 big-screen adaptation of Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein's Russian-set musical, which saw Chaim Topol recreate the lead role of Tevye the milkman, which he first played in the 1967 West End production following Zero Mostel's turn on Broadway. Glaser played Perchik, the Bolshevik revolutionary who falls for one of Tevye's five daughters. Now forty-two years on, Glaser is stepping into Topol's shoes to tackle the role of Tevye in a new touring revival which arrives in Edinburgh this week.
“He's a wonderful character to play,” Glaser says, “and it's one of the better roles out there. He's an everyman, and we can all find bits of ourselves in him, dealing with changes and everything else that goes on in the world. He's a lot of things. He's a father, he's a learner, who has this tremendous curiosity and a thirst for knowledge. He's a bit of a clown, a bit of a fool. There's so many qualities of all of us in him.”
Having worked alongside Topol, Glaser is unequivocal in his praise for the man who many see as having defined the role of Tevye.
“He was a force of nature,” according to Glaser. “It was my first film, so I was totally new to the experience, and had so much to learn. Topol had been very successful doing the show onstage, and he was very striking to watch. He very much made the role his own, and I hope I bring something of myself to the role as well.”
Inbetween Glaser's associations with Fiddler on the Roof has been a chequered career on stage and screen as well as a personal life marked by tragedy. Glaser remains best known, of course for his role as Starsky in seminal 1970s TV cop show, Starsky and Hutch. The programme, about a pair of very cool detectives, transformed the careers of both Glaser and his co-star, David Soul. While his onscreen other half Soul went on to have a pop music career on the back of the success of the series, Glaser ducked the limelight, and gave up acting for a decade to direct films including The Running Man, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well as episodes of Miami Vice and other TV shows.
Glaser seems reluctant to talk about his time in Starsky and Hutch these days. All he will be drawn on, in fact, is that he remembers those days “with a faulty memory and impaired vision.”
Of his move back into acting, Glaser says that “After I directed five feature films, I became uncomfortable with the video system, and I decided I wanted to write, and I started a screenplay that became a book.”
That book was Chrystallia and the Source of Light, a children's novel which reflected some of Glaser's concerns beyond his career. In 1981, Glaser's wife Elizabeth contracted HIV from a blood transfusion she had while giving birth to the couple's first child, Ariel. This wasn't diagnosed until four years later, by which time both Aerial and the Glasers' second child, Jake, had also been diagnosed HIV positive. Ariel passed away in 1988, and Elizabeth in 1994, after founding the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.
“The book is kind of a metaphor for my life,” Glaser says. “It's about a fourteen year old child whose mother is dying, and a little boy who needs to believe in something. Some adults like it, and adults who don't like it are those who don't like to live with the presence of fear in their lives. That's what the book is about. It's a fantastical adventure that asks what is the purpose of fear in our lives.”
Despite the seriousness of the book's themes, Glaser doesn't see it as a purging for him.
“It's a reaffirming,” he says, “and every time I talk about it it's a reaffirmation.”
Glaser was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1943, and studied English Literature before graduating with a master's degree in Theatre.
“I don't know how I became an actor,” Glaser reflects. “My mother was always encouraging me to perform, and one of my two older sisters was always into performing, so that may have been an influence.”
Glaser worked in rep in New York, gradually picking up small TV roles, “doing a soap opera in the daytime, and a Broadway show at night.”
Now aged seventy, Glaser's advice to younger actors starting out is simple.
“Don't,” he says. “Not unless you have a need to do it. If you really want to be an actor, go to a big city, whether it's London, New York or wherever, do what you have to do to survive, and see of you can get through it. If it's just about ego, then you're asking for trouble. When I was younger, I used to worry, and think, God, I hope I get that part, but I don't do that anymore. Some time ago I'd just done a job on a TV show, and I realised that I'd not only had a good time, but that I'd created that good time for myself. For me, acting, like all the creative arts, is a journey of self-discovery. What drives me is what drives you and what drives us all. We're looking for some kind of peace and fulfilment, and a sense of oneness with the world.”
Fiddler on the Roof, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, October 1st-5th. In Conversation With Paul Michael Glaser: A Life on Stage and Screen will take place at Edinburgh Festival Theatre on October 4th at 3.330pm as as fund-raiser for Scotland's HIV charity, Waverley Care.
Fiddler on the Roof – Great Tevye's of its time
There are many musical theatre aficionados who presume Israeli acting legend Chaim Topol to have originated the iconic role of Topol the milkman in Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein's Russian-set hit musical. In fact, in the original 1964 Broadway production, that honour went to American comic actor, Zero Mostel in a production that ran for more than 3000 performances.
Topol only appeared as Tevye in 1967, when Fiddler was produced on the West End, going on to immortalise the role in Norman Jewison's 1971 film of the show. Both men have returned to the show. Mostel returned as Tevye in a 1976 Broadway revival, with Topol joining the cast for a 1983 London production.
Inbetween, there were other revivals. In 1981, American star of Yiddish theatre Herschel Bernardi, took over as Tevye, while later productions included one in 2004 featuring British actor Alfred Molina and later Torch Song Trilogy and La Cage Aux Folles author Harvey Fierstein. Henry Goodman played Tevye in 2007 and Joe McGann in 2008;. Topol had already returned to the role in 1990 and 1994, and toured Australia for two years with the play from 2005. In 2009, Topol in Fiddler on the Roof: The Farewell Tour played for six months before the role was taken over once more by Harvey Fierstein.
The Herald, October 1st 2013