Theodore Bikel

The sole surviving actor from the 1951 classic talks about his experiences on the film

Theodore Bikel is just as well-known on the silver screen as he is on the stage. The actor has appeared in over 150 films, an Oscar nomination for role in The Defiant Ones and has a legendary run of over 2,000 performances as Teyve in the long-running play Fiddler on the Roof. The 85-year-old Austrian-born actor also made his feature film debut in the screen classic The African Queen, which finally makes its debut on both DVD and Blu-ray today, March 23. I had the chance to speak with Bikel over the phone about his film debut, in which he shared the screen with such film icons as Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Here's what he had to say.

I was curious how this whole journey started for you? What was your interaction with the script and how did you initially come on board?

Theodore Bikel: Well, actually, I was in a play in London, at the time, a play by Peter Ustinov, and John Huston came to see the play. In fact, he came twice and he liked it a lot. We started to chat, this and that, and he just had finished the location shoot in Africa for The African Queen and he was about to start interiors, some of them were exteriors, including the shots in the water. Since I can do a lot of accents, he asked me if I could do German, and, of course, that was no problem. The next thing, I was cast in the movie. I never had to audition for it, I never saw a script, until we were about to shoot.

Wow. You don't really hear something like that happening too often.

Theodore Bikel: It's usually much more difficult.

When you finally did get a hold of the script, what were your initial reactions to the story?

Theodore Bikel: Well, I had known the book, the book upon which the movie is based, and it's a classic. I said to myself, 'This is a strange book to make a film out of,' because 70 or 75% of the action takes place on a little rinky-dink boat between only two people. Will that make a movie?

I hear this production was just plagued with all sorts of problems. There was dysentery, stuff like that.

Theodore Bikel: Everybody came back from African sick, except for (Humphrey) Bogart and (John) Huston, because they were the only two who never drank the water.

What were some of the other kinds of challenges that you had in filming this? What were the shooting conditions like?

Theodore Bikel: Well, all of the stuff that I did was done in the studio. I was on the plane a lot of the time. I commuted. I was at the studio at 6 o'clock in the morning, they let me go at 5:30 and I was in the theater by 7:30, every night. I mean, there's no way you can do that. In America, it's a little bit hard to commute from New York to Los Angeles (Laughs). However, it was an exhilarating period for me, because I decided that I had to learn a lot. It was my first film and I learned a lot, especially from Bogart, how you do it. Frankly, I still don't know how he did it. I saw him in the makeup trailer, just going through the lines, mumbling them, and then half an hour later, you got a full-blown performance and I marveled at it. I said, 'Where did all this come from? I just heard him say those same things in the makeup trailer a little while ago.' Then, all of the sudden, there it is. I was full of admiration and, the one lesson that I did take from him was that less was more.

John Huston has done so many amazing films in his career. Can you talk a bit about working with him and what kind of director he was, as compared to directors you worked with later in your career?

Theodore Bikel: John Huston was the kind of director that totally left you alone. Not every actor always does it right, every time, but most of the time he was re-directing someone. He was making tight adjustments and not even in terms of interpretation because he knew that by the time that the character had been filmed... well, he got it right when he cast you. After that, he trusted you.

This is the last film from the original AFI Top 100 Films list to make it on DVD and what some believe to be the last pure classic to be release on DVD. Have you seen this new DVD release and do you have any favorite parts of this disc?

Theodore Bikel: I saw it. I saw the film and the extras and it's really quite wonderful what they did with the restoration of the film, the color and the sound. The extras are very interesting too, in how it was filmed and how people felt about it. I'm also in the extras a little bit. It's a sad thing to contemplate, but I'm the last surviving cast member of The African Queen.

This took quite a while to get this out on DVD. Did you ever have family members or friends ask you when this was going to come out at all? I heard it took six years to restore everything and get everything to the level they wanted it to be at.

Theodore Bikel: In a sense, this is a tribute to the art of restoration, with this film. They did this several years ago with My Fair Lady and it was a huge success. In fact, it was so wonderful, because they made a whole new print, with new sound and new color and they even had a new premiere. It was a whole new movie and I introduced the film. I said to myself, 'Why am I introducing the film? I am on the screen for under 15 minutes.' I realized that I'm the only survivor left of that film.

Finally, what would you like to say to fans of classic films or maybe someone who has never seen The African Queen about why they should pick up this new DVD next week?

Theodore Bikel: It's a classic. It's a classic in every sense. The book was a classic, and the people who made this film are trailblazers because it was an independent film. It was made independently in every sense, at a time when only studios were making films. It was made even without having distribution! Everything about it was like you had to reinvent the wheel.

Excellent. Well, that's about all I have for you, Theodore. Thanks so much for your time and best of luck with any future projects.

Theodore Bikel: Thank you very much.

You can watch Theodore Bikel alongside Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn with this brand new version of The African Queen, which finally makes its debut on both DVD and Blu-ray - and also in a new commemorative boxed set with a collectable book on DVD and Blu-ray - today, March 23.