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Theo Bikel at the Oscars — A Personal Remembrance

Ralph Seliger
February 28, 2016

by Ralph Seliger

1958-The-Defiant-Ones-03THEODORE BIKEL is the only show-business celebrity with whom I had a personal relationship and, coincidentally, the only one I recall approaching for an autograph. It was back when I was a teenager and he was at a Manhattan street-corner rally, speaking for a local candidate as a member of the New York County Democratic Committee.

I later met him through our mutual involvement with Meretz USA (now Partners for Progressive Israel). We were in Israel together several times, including when we both attended the World Zionist Congress. When accompanying him to a Tel Aviv bank a few years ago, to exchange our dollars for shekels, we discovered that our birthdays were days apart and that we shared Galitzianer roots.

After being fortunate enough to get out of his native Austria, Theo spent some formative years in what became Israel. Creating a just and secure Israel, at peace with its neighbors, was his lifelong commitment. Not only was he the board chair of Partners for Progressive Israel, he also led the organization in an important new policy direction when he declared his solidarity with 150 Israeli performers who publicly pledged to boycott the new theater in the large West Bank settlement town of Ariel. This prompted PPI to be the first group in the American-Jewish community, and the only Zionist organization, to endorse an economic boycott of West Bank settlements — even as PPI joined most American Jews in opposing the general BDS movement against Israel within the Green Line.

Two years ago, he worked diligently in PPI’s joint effort with Rabbis for Human Rights and T’ruah — Theo was featured in an online video and an op-ed article — protesting Israel’s treatment of its Bedouin citizens in the Negev, where many villages are unrecognized by the government and are repeatedly subjected to the threat and fact of wholesale demolition and displacement.

I GUESSED ACCURATELY that Theo was a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, having qualified for a lifelong membership as a one-time Oscar nominee for his supporting role as a Southern sheriff in the 1958 film, The Defiant Ones. Anticipating tonight’s Academy Awards ceremony, and noting that this is the first year that Theo will not be with us, I unearthed my email correspondence with him about the Oscars, dated February 25, 2013. After sharing my impressions of that year’s nominees, winners and losers, I asked if he had attended the Hollywood event and what his impressions were. This was his response:

Dear Ralph,

Thank you for your missive about the Oscars. Yes, I am a member of the Academy, have been for many years, even before I was nominated for THE DEFIANT ONES.

I do go to the screenings, participate in viewing and voting on foreign language films and try to see as much of the output as I can. As for the ceremony itself, I had not attended in quite a few years. This year, for some reason, I actually went to the Awards but I don’t think I’ll do it again.

I was disappointed in the production, thought [Seth] MacFarlane was a lightweight, felt the show dragged and lacked spark and excitement except for the appearance of Streisand (expected) and of Michelle Obama (unexpected.)

My choices usually don’t make it; I did a little better this year than in other years. I did vote for Daniel-Day Lewis and for Christoph Waltz but other than that nada. AMOUR was my choice for best picture, EMANUELLE RIVA for best actress, HELEN HUNT for best supporting, SPIELBERG for best director, THE GATEKEEPERS for documentary, etc.

Surprising that Lincoln got so little this year. After the writing awards were announced, two ladies in my row got up and walked out. One of them was Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Maybe I should have done the same. Watch the damn thing at home or at a party with friends, eat , drink and skip the dull part if you have TiVO. Being there used to be fun and the shows were much better when my late good friend Gil Cates was at the helm.

Be well,


Ralph Seliger is a veteran editor, freelance writer, and blogger. He edited Israel Horizons from 2003 until 2011, and currently blogs for Ameinu, The Third Narrative, and Partners for Progressive Israel.