One of the world’s best-loved musicals was brought to the screen by Norman Jewison, who had directed two previous Golden Globe winners, In the Heat of the Night and The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming!. Fiddler was to be his pièce de resistance.
The Mirisch Company had given him carte blanche, so he could handpick the cast, John Williams would handle the score, and Oswald Morris would be his cameraman. The original musical, when it was first proposed, was deemed an unlikely candidate for Broadway success – it was based on a Yiddish play Tevye and His Daughters by Sholem Aleichem, and was maybe too Jewish to attract mainstream audiences.
But that was precisely what made it so singular. The authors made no concession to water down its ethnic sensibility. The struggle of oppressed people to find refuge in a new country appealed to audiences worldwide who laughed and wept at every performance. It was also a showpiece for larger-than-life (and formerly blacklisted) Zero Mostel, whose Tevye became etched in the psyche of anyone who saw his performance.
The musical ran for years and years, and, for a full decade, it was the longest-running musical in Broadway history. It has been revived many times with among others Alfred Molina etching a memorable Teyve. When Jewison started production he had chosen a younger less flamboyant actor to play Tevye, the Israeli actor Topol who had appeared in the London production.
At the time it was greeted with derision, but Jewison was intent on making a grittier Fiddler and filmed all the exteriors in Yugoslavia. The film is certainly deserving of its Hollywood Foreign Press accolade, but for many what is missing is Mostel’s vibrancy.
It was well received by critics and ended up the top-grossing movie of the year. No one can deny it’s a faithful translation. No concession was made to downplay its Jewishness or to make it more accessible to wider audiences, but even Jewison himself considers it a mild disappointment. Topol won the Golden Globe for Best Actor, and once again Jewison was nominated for director but failed to win.
Incidentally, 1972 was a vintage year for both musicals and comedies. Other nominees that year were Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend, Walter Matthau’s Kotch, Elaine May’s A New Leaf, and Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite. Not making the cut, inexplicably, were such minor classics as Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, Paddy Chayefsky’s The Hospital, Woody Allen’s Bananas, Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge, and Milos Forman’s Taking Off.