NEW YORK — Actor Fyvush Finkel, the plastic-faced Emmy Award-winning character actor whose career in stage and screen started in Yiddish theater and led to memorable roles in “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway and on TV in “Boston Public” and “Picket Fences” has died, his son said Monday. He was 93.
Finkel, who was known for his mischievous smile and an ability to prop his ears at an angle for optimum comic effect, died early Sunday in Manhattan, said his son, Ian. He said his father had suffered heart problems for months.
He was a comedian, a singer, a stage actor, a film actor and a noted TV performer, from “Fantasy Island” to “Blue Bloods.” He celebrated his 80th birthday on the set of “Boston Public,” playing history teacher Harvey Lipschultz.
“He did everything,” Ian Finkel said. “That seems to be a trait of the old-time performers. They could all sing and dance and act and everything. It’s so wonderful.”
Finkel’s long career began at age 9 in 1930 when a production in his Brooklyn neighborhood was looking for a boy to sing “Oh, Promise Me.” Recalled Finkel in a 2002 interview: “I stopped that show cold. They gave me a dollar a night.”
In the vibrant Yiddish theater of the period, a solid performer could find steady work. Finkel studied singing, dancing and acting at a $1-a-week school. But his parents insisted he learn a trade just in case showbiz didn’t pan out.
A stint as a furrier was over quick. “I ruined about $500 worth of material,” he said.
He found himself back onstage when his new, mature voice settled in. He took a job with Yiddish theater in Pittsburgh just shy of his 18th birthday. “I thought, ‘This is where I belong.’ And I’ve been in the theater ever since.”
In 1964, as Yiddish theater was dying, he was hired for the touring company of the Broadway hit “Fiddler on the Roof.” He later said: “I went to do ‘Fiddler’ for less money than I was getting in Yiddish theater, but I had to make the move. And it was the best move I ever made.”
In “Fiddler on the Roof,” he played Mordcha, and he took on the role of Tevye the milkman in a national touring production in 1981. In his last appearance on Broadway in 1989’s “Cafe Crown,” Finkel earned a Drama Desk Award nomination.
At age 60, after 12 years with various productions of “Fiddler on the Roof,” he was cast in the off-Broadway musical “Little Shop of Horrors.” That opened up movies and TV for him, including “Brighton Beach Memoirs” (1986), “Q&A” (1990) and “Nixon” (1995).
“If you retire, you shrivel up. No doubt about it,” he said in 2002.
Finkel won a supporting actor Emmy in 1994 for playing Douglas Wambaugh on “Picket Fences” — he was also nominated the year before — and earned a Golden Globe nomination for the role in 1995. He also earned three Screen Actor Guild Awards, one for “Nixon” and two for “Picket Fences.”
Finkel was married to Trudi Lieberman for 61 years until her death in 2008. His survivors include his two sons: Ian, a musical arranger and xylophone virtuoso, and Elliot, a concert pianist; and five grandchildren.