Fyvush Finkel, an Emmy Award-winning actor who is best known to contemporary audiences for his roles on “Picket Fences” and “Boston Public” but who spent most of his early career on Gotham’s Lower East Side performing in the Yiddish theater, died Sunday in his Manhattan home. He was 93.
His son, Ian, confirmed the news to the New York Times, and said Finkel had been suffering from heart problems.
While Finkel was popular in his niche stage community, he broke out into the mainstream in 1964 with the national production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” in which he played Mordcha the innkeeper; in 1981 he took on the role of Tevye the milkman in a national touring production. Soon thereafter he landed a part in “Little Shop of Horrors” Off Broadway and won an Obie Award for his work in the New York Shakespeare Festival revival of “Cafe Crown.”
On the bigscreen, Finkel had a breakout performance in the 1990 Sidney Lumet pic “Q&A” as a corrupt attorney. He also appeared in “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “For Love or Money” and “Nixon.”
In 2009 Finkel appeared in the opening scene of best picture nominee “A Serious Man.” He played a Treitle Groshkover, known as a “Dybbuk” in Jewish lore — the wandering soul of a dead person that enters the body of a living person and controls his or her behavior.
In 2011 he starred in Philip R. Garrett’s film “The Other Men in Black,” playing a grandfather who recounts stories of Hasidic life.
But Finkel was best known to TV auds as public defender Douglas Wambaugh in “Picket Fences,” for which he was twice Emmy nominated, winning in 1994. He soon became a favorite of “Fences” creator David E. Kelley, who also cast him in “Boston Public” as an eccentric high school teacher.
Two years after “Picket Fences” ended its run, Finkel was cast in a remake of the ABC skein “Fantasy Island,” but the show was canceled after 13 episodes.
One of Finkel’s first television appearances was in a 1977 episode of Telly Savalas cop drama “Kojak.”
Born in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrant parents, Finkel was given the English first name of Philip but quickly became known as Fyvush, the Yiddish equivalent.
He took to the stage at age 9. Over the years he refined his act as a singer, dancer and comedian in the Jewish theater as well as a standup comedian. When not working in Manhattan, he would often head upstate to the Catskills resorts, part of the Borscht Belt.
Finkel was married to Trudi Lieberman for 61 years until her death in 2008. Survivors include two sons: Ian, a musical arranger and xylophone virtuoso, and Elliot, a concert pianist.
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