Remembering Former Equity President Theo Bikel

Theodore Bikel was the quintessential multi-hyphenate:  actor/singer/writer/teacher/
musician/lecturer/linguist/spokesperson/raconteur/political activist/union leader.  He passed away at the age of 91 on July 21, 2015, at UCLA Medical of natural causes. His professional career spanned more than 70 years, beginning when his family left Austria for Palestine in 1943 and he joined the famed Habimah Theatre as an apprentice.  His service to Equity began not long after he arrived in the United States in 1954 when he joined the union to appear on Broadway in Tonight in Samarkand.  

Bikel originated the role of Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music in 1959 and was nominated for a Tony Award.  As a high profile member of the union, he was active during the Broadway strike in 1960, making numerous and effective public appearances on Equity’s behalf.  He was elected to Council as a replacement in 1961 and during what he termed as “my short but turbulent tenure on Council,” served both on special and standing committees, including the Alien Committee, Committee on Election Procedures and a committee to negotiate agreements re de-segregation, among others.  He also served on the Committee on Legislation, traveling often to Washington to meet with Senators, Representatives and White House advisors to press for reforms to benefit professional actors.  He was elected to a regular five-year term in 1962, pledging to “serve where my contribution may be most effective in helping to further the welfare of the membership.”  One of these contributions was to become an original incorporator of the Actors Federal Credit Union.  He didn’t complete this Council term, however, resigning instead to run for, and be elected, to the post of First Vice President, an office he held until 1973, when he was elected President.  Running for his third presidential term in 1979, he said he was proud of the growth of members and workweeks during his stewardship and of his legislative lobbying efforts, but “perhaps the most valuable service I have to offer the members,” he said, “is spokesmanship and passionate advocacy of our cause.  I have the deepest and most abiding respect for our profession and those who practice it.”  Following three terms as president, Bikel was named President Emeritus.

In addition to his professional and Equity commitments over the years, Bikel was appointed by President Carter to the National Council on the Arts, was a delegate to the 1968 Democratic Convention, was Senior Vice President of the American Jewish Congress, Vice President of the International Federation of Actor (FIA) and a Board Member of Amnesty International (USA).

He continued his service to all of the performing arts unions as President of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America for more than 25 years. He just recently celebrated his 76th year in show business.