The late, great Yiddish theater star Fyvush Finkel dies at 93

The World

The actor Fyvush Finkel, a fixture of Jewish life in New York, died on Sunday at the age of 93.

You might know him for his role as grumpy lawyer Douglas Wambaugh in the 1990s TV series "Picket Fences."

But he actually got his first break in the business as a kid in Brooklyn. As he described it, his father subscribed to the Yiddish newspaper The Forward, and one day as he thumbed through the paper he saw an ad from the local Yiddish theater.

“The Yiddish theater, which was four blocks away from where we lived. They’re looking for a boy of 9 or 10 years old that knows the song ‘Oh Promise Me’ for a wedding sequence that they had on stage. I knew the song,” said Finkel in a 2015 television interview

And like that he was bitten by the theater bug. It was not uncommon for Yiddish actors of his age to get their start as children, according to Joel Berkowitz, author of "Yiddish Theatre" and director of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

Fyvush Finkel was born Philip Finkel. His parents were both immigrants: his mother from Minsk, Belarus, his father from Warsaw, Poland. Yiddish, being the lingua franca of Eastern European Jews, is what his parents spoke to each other. And Yiddish was the language his family spoke at their home in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. Finkel grew up fluent.

Finkel’s parents were OK with him being an actor, but encouraged him to have a trade to fall back on, so he attended a vocational high school and learned the fur trade. He proved to be pretty terrible at it, as he recounts in the 2015 interview: “I’m not a smash hit as a furrier, maybe I’ll become an actor again. Of course I still had my things about me, dancing, singing, I was funny. I could tell a story. I could tell a joke.”

He left for Pittsburgh and joined a Yiddish acting group, “what Yiddish theater folks would’ve called performing ‘in the provinces,’ which really meant anywhere but New York,” says Berkowitz. “He did that for a number of years but the Yiddish theater by that point was really going into decline so he needed to find other work.”

When Finkel got into show business he made an unusual choice to go by his Yiddish name, Fyvush, rather than Philip.

“Something like that would sound all-American,” says Berkowitz. Many Jewish actors did change their names especially when they wanted to cross over from Yiddish speaking audiences to the mainstream.

“If you’re Muni Weisenfreund in Chicago, but you want to make it in Hollywood, you don’t really stay Muni Weisenfreund. You change it to Paul Muni and he a has a notable career in Hollywood. There are lots of examples like that,” Berkowitz says. “[Finkel] didn’t have the Hollywood leading man looks that Paul Muni had and maybe he thought with this very Jewish looking face, I’ll stick with Fyvush.”

As the Yiddish theater declined, Finkel’s career on Broadway. He was cast in the original production of "Fiddler on the Roof" and toured with the production.

“Work was sort of drying up for him and then 'Fiddler' comes along and is this huge juggernaut that he’s able to make a living from for quite a few years,” says Berkowitz.

But then at the age of 75 he was cast as the cantankerous lawyer Douglas Wambaugh in "Picket Fences," which made him a familiar face to many, many Americans.

“'Picket Fences' really opens up a whole new career for him for the last few decades of his life,” says Berkowitz.