Is best known as a star of Yiddish theater and for his role as lawyer Douglas Wambaugh on the television series, “Picket Fences,” for which he earned an Emmy Award. He is also known for his portrayal of Harvey Lipschultz, a crotchety U.S. history teacher, on the TV series, “Boston Public.” He adopted the stage name “Fyvush,” which was a common Yiddish given name. He made his Broadway theatre debut in the original production of the musical, “Fiddler on the Roof” as Mordcha, the innkeeper, in 1965. He then played Lazar Wolf, the butcher, in the limited run 1981 Broadway revival, and eventually played the lead role of Tevye the milkman for years in the national touring company. Mr. Finkel’s film and TV includes the English-subtitled, Yiddish sketch-comedy revue, “Monticello, Here We Come;” the original “Kojak;” the miniseries, “Evergreen;” “Off Beat;” opposite Robin Williams in the American Playhouse adaptation of “Seize the Day;” the film adaptation of Neil Simon's Broadway comedy, “Brighton Beach Memoirs;” Sidney Lumet’s “Q & A;” “Fantasy Island;” Oliver Stone’s “Nixon,” “The Crew;” “Chicago Hope;” “Law & Order;” “Early Edition;” “Hollywood Squares;” “The Simpsons;” “Real Monsters;” and the Coen brothers film, “A Serious Man.” Mr. Finkel appeared in the role of Mr. Mushnik in the Off-Broadway musical, “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Café Crown” (Obie Award, Drama Desk nom.), “Fyvush Finkel: From Second Avenue to Broadway” and “New Jerusalem” at CSC in New York City.
You’ve certainly have had a long and busy career in show business.
I was born in Brooklyn and from the time I was nine years old as a child, and then for almost thirty-five years in the Yiddish Theatre downtown on the lower East Side, and I also performed as performed as a stand-up comic in the Catskill’s on the Borscht Belt. I was playing parts till my voice changed as a child, then I went to a vocational high school. I studied to be a furrier, but I never worked at it. As soon as I graduated high school, I went to a stock company in Pittsburgh, a Jewish theater, and played there for 38 weeks. When I was forty-three years of age, was when I went into the American Theatre.
Were there inspirations in the theatre for you at that time?
There was. I had an idol, Ludwig Satz. He was a great American tragic and comic actor. He had an enormous range. He was great in a dramatic part, a good comedic part; he had such a talent. I was striving for that; I hope I got it.
You made your Broadway debut in the original 1964 production of “Fiddler on the Roof” as Mordcha, the innkeeper, in 1965, and it ran to July, 1972. You then played Lazar Wolf, the butcher, in the limited run 1981 Broadway revival, and eventually played the lead role as Tevye for the National Company.
That was later on when we went on the road. It was first National Company on the road. We went into cities like a circus; we were sold out before we got there; for me, it was like vacation. We didn’t have to worry about business. It was a new thing in my life.
I had ‘beginners luck.’ Jerome Robbins was a brilliant genius. He wouldn’t never show a step that he couldn’t do himself. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have had the chance. He knew exactly what he wanted to do and nobody would interfere. I was the innkeeper, and then I did the Butcher. After a while there were so many companies out doing the show. The dinner theaters also played it a lot. I played Tevye many times.
If you take a young man and he has ambition to be an actor, for many in those days that ambition meant you wanted to play Hamlet. But I was a character actor, and for me, my ‘Hamlet’ turned out to named Tevye.
I learned touring with Luther Adler as he played Tevye. I would watch him; he inspired me so as an actor. I had him inside in my mind. When I first played scenes with him, there was nothing like it. He was an inspiration for me when I played Tevye. With that role you had to learn the script, and as he told me: “If you stick to the script it will take care of you. You’ll get the response.” With Zero in the role – when he gave a performance, he was always kidding around as Tevye.
Luther knew what he was talking about. In those days, Harold Clurman around; he was a great director, and Stella (Adler) was a fine teacher. I saw her act before she started teaching. Her father was a big star in the Yiddish Theatre. He died when I was three years old.
You also played ‘Sam’ in the New York Shakespeare Festival revival of the Yiddish classic, “Café Crown.”
With “Café Crown,” I did that show for Joseph Papp. That play put me ‘on the map’ as a comedian in the American Theatre. The audiences understood that it was based on a real restaurant called Café Royal which was on the lower East Side. We all used to go there all the time; it was where you went to make deals.
I had a waiter there who served on me for thirty years; the same waiter. And he would never give me what I wanted. He would always insist on what he felt you should order. And whatever you ordered, he would switch it around. When I played Sam, I played him. He was the one I imitated, he had a walk like a penguin. I imitated it and got a million laughs.
You also played in the TV series, “Picket Fences.”
I got that role at the age of seventy. I became a worldwide figure because of TV. They knew me all over the world and people would come up to me. But I knew it was because of my nose. That’s how they knew me.
You kept returning to the stage, performing in your show, “Fyvush Finkel: From Second Avenue to Broadway.”
That was a revue, I did it at the Houseman Theatre. I did it because I wanted to show the world where I came from. I did a lot of the stuff in Yiddish. It was a great experience. I felt like I have been away from the stage for too long. I’m very proud that I did theatre; it was always great being on a stage.
What has been your greatest source of strength?
Laughter. When I hear an audience laugh and applaud, that’s it! And when you’re ninety, and the phone is still ringing, that’s a good thing. Young people today have to learn that you’re in a profession where you have to have luck. But it’s also about being pro-active. With an actor if you’re lucky and you can get work, you have to ready. You have to rely on yourself to have confidence. Don’t get discouraged.
When I was seventy, that’s when I got my series so I was never discouraged. There’s always a customer for everything. Only a failure can get discouraged. I want to keep working. And when you’ve got your good health, you’ve got everything!