Paul Michael Glaser tells Mark Fisher about revisiting Fiddler on the Roof more than 40 years on from his first appearance in the iconic tale
I’m not exactly expecting Paul Michael Glaser to jump over the bonnet of a red Ford Gran Torino and pull up the collar of his chunky-knit cardigan as he walks over to greet me, but neither am I quite ready for the man who comes down the stairs at the London Welsh Centre.
It’s not that he’s looking his age – you’d never guess the Starsky and Hutch star was 70 – it’s just that his full head of grey hair is now accompanied by a voluminous beard and you have to look beyond the glasses to spot that old familiar twinkle in his eyes.
It’s there, of course, as is the boyish enthusiasm for the job and a wonder at the weird way his life has turned out. Here he is in rehearsals for Fiddler on the Roof, doing a big mainstage tour of the UK, and he can’t help thinking back to 1971 when he was the heart-throb star of the famous movie version.
Back then, in his first film role, he played Perchik, the earnest young firebrand determined to introduce modern ideas to his traditional Jewish community, to overturn the inequalities of Tsarist Russia and, this being a musical, to get the girl.
Now, more than 40 years later, Glaser has acquired the status of elder statesman. In a production directed and choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood of Strictly Come Dancing fame, he is taking the lead role of Tevye. Where once he called for revolution as Perchik, now he is the upholder of tradition, a well-meaning patriarch trying to ensure his daughters uphold the Jewish faith as they come of age.
That’s why today he is looking more like the avuncular Topol, the actor who made the part his own, than the idealistic 27-year-old he was in his pre-Starsky and Hutch days. It’s a transition he’s happy with. “Not since Starsky and Hutch have I felt this comfortable in a role,” he says. “When I did Starsky, I could play anything: silly, funny, serious, tragic, angry. I had the whole gamut of emotions to play with and that’s what Tevye has. He’s this amazing mix, which is necessary because he’s a bit of an everyman.”
An awful lot has happened to Glaser in the intervening period. It’s astounding he hasn’t been ground down by it. In 1985, his wife Elizabeth was diagnosed with HIV. She had been infected by a contaminated blood transfusion four years earlier when she was giving birth to their daughter Ariel. This was the early days of the virus and, by the time they realised what had happened, she had given birth to a second child, Jake. Both children also had the virus. Ariel died in 1981 at the age of seven; Jake is now in his late twenties and continues his mother’s charitable work.
Before her death in 1994, Elizabeth set up the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, which operates in 16 countries and aims to prevent and treat childhood AIDS. Her husband served as chairman of the board for six years and is now honorary chairman.
In addition to his campaigning work, he donates the profits from his self-published children’s book, Chrystallia and the Source of Light, to the foundation. The story is a fantasy adventure about a brother and sister whose mother is terminally ill and whose world is falling apart. It could be a metaphor for what he has gone through.
“I really wanted to share with people what I’d learned about helplessness and fear,” says the actor, who also has a 15-year-old daughter, Zoe Anne, from his subsequent marriage to producer Tracy Barone, which ended six years ago.
To come to terms with the loss of Elizabeth and Ariel, he consulted a specialist (he prefers the word “teacher” to “therapist”) and developed a philosophy from which he drew strength.
“I can see now how I can use fear,” he says. “Fear is a natural state of the human condition. It’s there. One can ignore it, suffer from it or try to use it. The mind doesn’t want to cope with helplessness. It doesn’t want to deal with the fact that it has no power over mortality.
“We always use the words, ‘I am scared,’ but that’s not really what we mean. What we mean is a part of us is scared. We can even look at that part, give it a perimeter, give it a colour, and that means we can also perceive parts of our body that aren’t scared. When we can acknowledge that fear, we can say, ‘Good for you for having the courage to carry on, to seek faith and to live in hope in the face of this helplessness.’ You find courage and you find compassion for yourself. The purpose of fear for me is to remind me of my conscious self which can then choose my heart.”
It’s a philosophy that gives him a perspective on many of the world’s problems. He observes, for example, that the racist politics of the Russian authorities who threaten the Jewish village in Fiddler on the Roof are also motivated by fear. “We hold on to bigotry and racism because we are afraid. We don’t want to deal with our fears so we blame someone else. We delineate a difference between us and them. That makes us feel valid, powerful and like we are not helpless.”
That the story of Fiddler on the Roof continues to connect to audiences, irrespective of their religion, gives him great cheer. Now, taking on the part of Tevye, in a show produced by John Stalker, the ex-director of Edinburgh’s Festival and King’s theatres, he finds himself being fascinated by the character’s uncertainty. He is a man trying to uphold tradition but, ever willing to see another point of view, constantly overtaken by change.
“He is all of our voices,” says Glaser. “He’s not being clever, he’s not being anything but very human and very fallible. He’s trying to find himself – and that’s what we’re all trying to do.”
• Fiddler on the Roof, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, tomorrow until 5 October.