A Profile of Fyvush Finkel – World Class Entertainer
By: Myra Chanin
Four years ago, Fyvush Finkel once again proved himself a world class entertainer, when he celebrated his 88th and the National Yiddish Theater 96th birthdays with Fyvush Finkel, Live, a one man show which the NY Times called, “A happy go lucky mishmash of music, dance, film and comedy, all calculated to evoke nostalgia, elicit a tear and provoke a laugh.“
Now 91-1/2 years young, Fyvush Is hardly resting on his laurels. Tonight at 8 pm, Fyvush (his second night) celebrates Purim during his 54 Below debut with a first hand account of his incredible song and humor filled career, a journey that led from Second Avenue to Broadway with award winning stops on Network TV and Hollywood. Accompanied by his two sons, Ian Finkel, the World’s Greatest Xylophonist, and Elliott Finkel, Concert Pianist Extraordinaire, Fyvush and Family present a first hand account of Fyvush’s incredible career and undiminished mastery of show business razzle-dazzle, an hour of pure pleasure for all accompanied by his heart-warming smiles, songs, jokes and stories.
Finkel was born in Brooklyn. The third of four sons of an immigrant tailor, he first appeared on the stage at age 9. “I played child parts till I was 14, 15, then my voice changed. So I decided to learn a trade and went to a vocational high school in New York where I studied to become a furrier.” He never worked at that trade. As soon as he graduated from high school, he joined a Jewish Stock Company in Pittsburgh, performed with them for 38 weeks and never looked back.
Finkel worked regularly on Second Avenue until the Yiddish theatres began losing their audiences in the early ‘60s, when he shifted to the broadway stage. He made his Broadway debut as Mordcha, the innkeeper in the original production of Fiddler on the Roof in 1965 eventually working his way up to playing Tevye in the national touring company for many years. In 1988, Finkel’s performance in the New York Shakespeare Festival revival of the Yiddish classic drama, Cafe Crown, earned him an Obie Award and a Drama Desk nomination.
What inspires him? “The audience. If you really pay attention to how people react to what you do, you’ll never get in trouble.”
How does he give back? “By giving the best performance that I can. The audience is the main thing, not the producers. If the audience doesn’t like you, they don’t buy tickets and you don’t get paid.”
One of the few surviving stars of Second Avenue’s glory days, Fyvush has let no grass grow under his feet. After a few small TV parts in Kojak and Evergreen, he returned to film in 1986 in the detective comedy Off Beat (1986) and in that same year played opposite Robin Williams in a PBS adaptation of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day.Through the 1990s and 2000s, Finkel has appeared in movies including Nixon and The Crew, guested on TV series including Chicago Hope and Law and Order, and provided voiceovers for episodes of The Simpsons and the direct-to-video feature The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars.
He was awarded an Emmy in 1994 for playing Public Defender Douglas Wambaugh in Picket Fence and was equally memorable as Harvey Lipschultz, a crotchety U.S. History teacher in Boston Public. He totally owned the first eight minutes of the recent Coen Brothers film, A Serious Man, in 2009 playing a dybbuk (a Jewish zombie) in the retelling of the story of Job, a segment filmed entirely in Yiddish.