Born on October 9, 1922, in Brooklyn, New York, Fyvush Finkel became an actor, singer and comedian who was a star of Yiddish theater for decades, later appearing in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway. He won an Obie Award before landing a major role in the TV series Picket Fences, for which he won an Emmy. He has also starred in Boston Public, Nixon and A Serious Man, in addition to his own live shows. On August 14, 2016, Finkel died at his home in New York City. He was 93.
Background and Early Career
Award-winning actor Fyvush Finkel was born Philip Finkel on October 9, 1922, in Brooklyn, New York. The son of European immigrants, he started acting in productions when he was 9 years old, and went on to become an icon of the Yiddish theater community on Manhattan's Second Avenue.
Although he studied to become a furrier at a vocational high school, Finkel opted to continue in the performing arts, also establishing himself as a comedian who played the Borscht Belt in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. He adopted the stage moniker "Fyvush," a Yiddish translation of his first name.
Lead in 'Fiddler on the Roof'
He married playwright Gertrude Lieberman in 1947, and continued to work in Yiddish theater until he was in his 40s. He then joined the cast of Jerome Robbins' classic Fiddler on the Roof, making his Broadway debut as Mordcha, the innkeeper, in the original production in 1964. He played Lazar Wolf, the butcher, in a 1981 revival of the show and stepped into the starring role of Tevye, the milkman, in the national tour.
Finkel continued his theater work, portraying store owner Mr. Mushnik in the Off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors. Finkel later starred in the 1988 revival of Cafe Crown, for which he won an Obie Award.
By the mid-1980s, Finkel had started to make his way in the world of television and film as well. He appeared in the 1985 NBC miniseries Evergreen and the 1986 PBS movie Seize the Day (based on the Saul Bellow novel), and had roles in big-screen features like Off Beat and the film version of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs (both 1986).
Emmy for 'Picket Fences'
TV producer and screenwriter David E. Kelley saw Finkel's portrayal of an attorney in the Sidney Lumet film Q&A (1990), and thought the actor would be perfect to portray public defense lawyer Douglas Wambaugh in the 1992 TV drama Picket Fences. The acclaimed series based in a Wisconsin town ran for four seasons, and Finkel was nominated for a 1993 supporting actor Emmy for his work, going on to win the award the following year at the age of 71. Finkel also received Screen Actors Guild nominations as well as a Golden Globe nod.
With roles in big-screen projects like For Love or Money (1993) and Oliver Stone's Nixon (1995), Finkel also lent his voice to the cartoon series Rugrats and The Simpsons, and starred in the 1998 relaunch of Fantasy Island. He and Kelley reunited for the show Boston Public, in which Finkel portrayed history teacher Harvey Lipschultz; like Picket Fences, the show ran for four seasons, from 2000-2004. Finkel also appeared in the 2002 documentary The Komediant and later in Joel Coen and Ethan Coen's 2009 film A Serious Man, as well as guest-starring on the NBC drama Harry's Law.
'Fyvush Finkel Live!'
Even with his success in film and television, Finkel always returned to the theater. He starred in the vaudevillian tribute Finkel's Follies in the early '90s, which played in both New York and Los Angeles, and later starred in Fyvush Finkel—From Second Avenue to Broadway in 1997 at New York's Town Hall. For these productions, he worked closely with his musician sons Elliot, a concert pianist, and Ian, a musical arranger.
In 1997, Finkel was also honored with a star on the Yiddish Theater Walk of Fame on Second Avenue in New York City. “This star has added 25 years to my life,’’ he said, according to The New York Times.
In 2008 Finkel continued his stage work in the David Ives play New Jerusalem, and in 2010 he starred in Fyvush Finkel Live! a National Yiddish Theater–Folksbiene production.
On August 14, 2016, the beloved actor died at his home in New York City, after suffering from heart problems. He was 93.
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