Fyvush Finkel, Pillar of Yiddish Theater Who Crossed Into TV, Dies at 93
Fyvush Finkel, whose homespun moniker and putty face — comic statements all their own — helped him become a mainstay of what remained of Yiddish entertainment, and who later crossed over into television as the cantankerous lawyer on the 1990s series “Picket Fences,” died on Sunday at his home in Manhattan. He was 93.
His death was confirmed by his son Ian, who said Mr. Finkel had been having heart problems for many months.
In 1997, Mr. Finkel, then 75, had a star with his name added to the 30 stars on the Yiddish Theater Walk of Fame, on the sidewalk outside the Second Avenue Deli in Manhattan.
“This star has added 25 years to my life,’’ he said at the time.
It was actually a bittersweet moment. The streets around Second Avenue south of 14th Street formed a neighborhood where less than a century earlier a dozen Yiddish theaters had drawn flocks of garment workers, peddlers and shopkeepers to see everything from “King Lear” in Yiddish to schmaltzy family melodramas. Yet long before Mr. Finkel was honored, all the theaters had closed or been converted to parking lots or clothing emporiums. Even the deli would move, 10 years later, to 33rd Street off Third Avenue.
Still, Mr. Finkel, who began on the Yiddish stage as a 9-year-old, never gave up performing. In his autumnal years, he often starred in pastiches recalling the Yiddish theater’s heyday, adorned with old theater posters of Molly Picon and Jacob Adler and musical chestnuts like “Yidl Mitn Fidl.”
In 1991 he patched together a merry valentine to Yiddish vaudeville, with himself as the star, called “Finkel’s Follies.” Presented Off Broadway at the John Houseman Theater on West 42nd Street, it featured such shopworn shticks as the waiter who rebukes a customer for griping about a filthy napkin.
“Eleven people used that napkin,” the waiter says. “You’re the only one who complained.”
A reviewer described Mr. Finkel’s distinctive visage: “His cheeks are two doormen flanking the long sloping awning of his nose. His darting eyes can illuminate or annihilate.”
Mr. Finkel was a lifelong trouper in any language. In winter he traveled to Florida to bring his valise of routines to the beachfront condominiums. Fifteen condos in 10 days, he boasted to an interviewer. In summer, like a monarch butterfly, he fluttered north to the handful of surviving Catskills hotels, sampling the borscht when there was no longer a belt and delighting the hotel denizens with jokes many had heard more than once.
Then, in 1988, he won an Obie Award for portraying a classically contemptuous Jewish waiter in the New York Shakespeare Festival revival of the comedy “Cafe Crown,” set in a replica of Cafe Royal, an extinct hangout for off-duty Yiddish actors. He knew the actual restaurant well.
“There was one man there, a waiter, his name was Klinger, who was a flat-footed man who always got the order wrong,” Mr. Finkel recalled in an interview with Richard F. Shepard, The New York Times’s Yiddish theater critic. “I used to order boiled beef, and he would get it wrong. No apologies, no smiling. Klinger was the kind of waiter who slams down an order of eggs in front of a customer. The customer complains, ‘Don’t you ever have a kind word for anyone?’ The waiter says: ‘You want a kind word? Don’t eat the eggs!’”
His performance in the small role of a lawyer in Sidney Lumet’s crime film “Q&A” in 1990 prompted David E. Kelley to cast Mr. Finkel as the blustery defense lawyer Douglas Wambaugh on “Picket Fences,” a series chronicling the quirky events that befell the residents of a small town in Wisconsin, which ran from 1992 to 1996 on CBS. Mr. Finkel won an Emmy in 1994 as best supporting actor in a dramatic series. He later played a history teacher on “Boston Public,” also produced by Mr. Kelley, seen on Fox from 2000 to 2005.
In 2009 he was featured in the opening scene of “A Serious Man,” the Coen brothers’ satirical reworking of the Job story in a Midwestern locale, playing a character who may or may not be a dybbuk.
Mr. Finkel was born Philip Finkel on Oct. 9, 1922, in Brownsville, Brooklyn, then a poor and working-class Jewish neighborhood. He was the third of four sons of a tailor who had immigrated from Warsaw and a homemaker who had immigrated from Minsk, now in Belarus. By 1931, he was appearing in Yiddish shows and had taken the first name Fyvush.
He played child parts until he was a teenager, then decided he should take on a more practical trade and went to a vocational high school to learn the fur industry. But he never worked in furs, and he soon joined a Yiddish stock company. No matinee idol, he played to small Yiddish-speaking audiences in places like Pittsburgh and Pottsville, Pa.
“We were on a cooperative plan,” he told an interviewer. “After the management deducted the expenses, we shared the profit. If my father wouldn’t send me money, I couldn’t stay there.”
While he continued to perform into the 1960s, on the road or in what was left of the Second Avenue theater scene, he realized that with the inexorable decline of the audience — children of the original immigrants often spurned the mother tongue as a hoary throwback to the Old Country — he would have to penetrate Broadway. He was fortunate that a show came along with many roles he was bred to play: “Fiddler on the Roof,” the musical story of Tevye, the harried shtetl milkman plagued with marriageable daughters.
He first played Mordcha, the show’s innkeeper, and kept that role through most of the long-running original production, which opened in 1964 and closed in 1972. When the show was revived in 1981, he had a bigger role: Lazar Wolf, the butcher, whom Tevye unsuccessfully chooses as the fiancé of one of his daughters. During the show’s national tour, he often played Tevye.
Mr. Finkel’s wife, the former Gertrude Lieberman, whom he married in 1947, died in 2008. In addition to his son Ian, a musical arranger and xylophonist, he is survived by another son, Elliot, a concert pianist; a brother, Nat; three grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. Both Mr. Finkel’s sons performed with him in his revues.
Mr. Finkel savored his memories of the Yiddish theater and loved to entertain interviewers with stories from that lost world. There was, for example, the one about the Yiddish actor who asks a woman to wake up her husband, who is snoring in the theater’s front row.
She replies: “You wake him up. You put him to sleep.”
A version of this article appears in print on August 15, 2016, on page D11 of the New York edition with the headline: Fyvush Finkel, Pillar of Yiddish Theater, Dies at 93. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe