The JBIFC are very sad to report that the actor Chaim Topol, who played Milos Columbo in Roger Moore’s fifth 007 adventure For Your Eyes Only (1981), has died, aged 87.
Topol (who was happy to be known just by his surname) was probably best known to cinema audiences for his Oscar-nominated portrayal of the troubled milkman Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof (1971), the smash-hit film musical, an all-singing role he also played on stage at numerous locations around the globe, and reprised later in his career, including on Broadway in the 1990s. In fact, Topol’s rendition of the very catchy hit song ‘If I Were A Rich Man’ from the movie also became a firm favourite with many audiences, and has been regularly played on radio stations and sung in productions mounted by amateur theatrical groups ever since. Topol himself was very proud of the song, and his role as Tevye, although he was also keen to take on other movie roles. His films included Galileo (1975), Flash Gordon (1980), alongside a young pre-Bond Timothy Dalton, and The Winds of War (1983).
A New Director, and a New Direction
After a long and successful time as editor and Second Unit director on the Bond films, John Glen was given the opportunity by Cubby Broccoli to be full director on For Your Eyes Only (FYEO), and his first James Bond film as director saw Glen very much bring a more down-to-earth, realistic and gritty feel to the film’s storyline, arguably closer to Ian Fleming’s concept of 007. After the hugely escapist Moonraker (1979), both Cubby Broccoli and Glen were keen to take Bond in a new direction, where 007 would rely more on his own resourcefulness and physical skills. Less gadget-laden and more tense, FYEO seemed to draw inspiration from the earlier films in the 007 franchise and presented itself as more of a thriller than an outlandish extravaganza. It also brought out a notably strong performance from Roger Moore. As well as action, there was more emphasis on character, and the interplay between trust and duplicity was placed at the heart of the movie. The storyline teased the audience as to who the real villain might be: was it Ari Kristatos (played by Julian Glover) or Milos Columbo (played by Topol)? Even Roger Moore’s Bond is uncertain at first.
The casting of Topol as the charismatic Columbo was an inspired piece of casting, and it is thought that Topol won the role after he was suggested for the part by Cubby Broccoli’s wife, Dana. The role was based on a character that had appeared in ‘Risico’, one of the short stories in Ian Fleming’s original short-story collection For Your Eyes Only (1960). Milos Columbo is a charismatic smuggler of gold and diamonds, who runs a large smuggling organisation in Corfu and is in constant competition with his rival Kristatos, who is actually a heroine smuggler with links to the Russian KGB. Columbo’s habit of munching on pistachios was apparently something suggested by Topol, and became a key part of the tense warehouse scene, where someone treads on the discarded pistachio shells.
Topol was not just an actor and singer: he was also a playwright and screenwriter, penned an autobiography, and contributed to a number of documentaries. Born in Tel Aviv, he was – in many ways – one of Israel’s most famous showbiz stars.
Chaim Topol, 1935-2023, R.I.P.
Did You Know?
Topol was also known for his friendliness and ability for diplomacy and reconciling people. In his book Bond on Bond (2012), Sir Roger Moore revealed that Topol had suggested to Bond producer Cubby Broccoli that he should invite his former EON partner Harry Saltzman to the premiere of FYEO, held on 24th June, 1981, at the Odeon Leicester Square in London. The two producers had split acrimoniously in the mid-1970s, but Topol’s suggestion worked beautifully: the reunion of the producers at the premiere was a happy one.