On the Eve of the Tony Awards, Michael C. Bernardi Wins

At the center of a legacy while making history of his own: Michael Bernardi, as Mordcha, in Fiddler on the Roof, now on Broadway. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

When the 2016 Tony Awards are bestowed this Sunday night, one of the nominees or winners won’t be Michael C. Bernardi. Which is not to say he won’t celebrate, for he has been celebrating ever since last December, when the 31-year-old actor debuted on Broadway in the current revival of Fiddler on the Roof. He plays Mordcha, keeper of the modest inn on the shtetl where, in a pivotal scene, poor milkman Tevye and affluent widower Lazar agree to a shidduch between Tevye’s eldest daughter and Lazar — and where the townsmen, before they dance, sing Sheldon Harnick’s timeless words of jubilation:

To life, to life, l’chaim.
L’chaim, l’claim, to life.

Is there any irony lost on Bernardi? No, for even when he’s on stage, even when he’s in character, he knows that with each performance he follows in the legendary footsteps of his father, Herschel Bernardi, who played the iconic Tevye more than 700 times over three years on Broadway and on countless tours. Part of a celebrated family of Yiddish theater actors, the elder Bernardi was one of the “Big Three” Tevye’s of history — along with Zero Mostel, who won a Tony for originating the role on Broadway, and the Israeli actor-writer-director Topol, who was Oscar-nominated for playing Teyve on the big screen.

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Born in 1923, Herschel Bernardi translated his roots in Yiddish theater into Broadway renown but also into a TV/film as a formidable character actor. That adjective isn’t spin: Who else could earn an Emmy nomination for acting in Peter Gunn, the 1950s private-eye drama, and lend his voice both to the Jolly Green Giant (“Ho, ho, ho”) and Charlie the Tuna (“Sorry, Charlie!”)? What a life: Like Mostel, Bernardi was also a victim of the McCarthy blacklist as well. Herschel died of a heart attack in 1986 at the age of 62. Michael, his youngest son, was 19 months old. L’chaim, indeed.

The younger Bernardi began performing standup at the comically young age of 9. He graduated from the BFA acting program at SUNY Purchase and the MFA acting program at USC. On TV, he appeared on Monk and on film he appeared in various Happy Madison films (actors must eat). Bernardi’s website notes that he has been “mercilessly killed in several ultra-low-budget horror films.” As actors often are.

Right before landing the role of Mordcha in the current Broadway Fiddler, Bernardi was busy playing Tevye in a regional revival in Massachusetts. It was likely around that time that he published this on his website:

This is a role Michael’s father, Herschel Bernardi, helped make famous on Broadway nearly 50 years ago and his been Michael’s personal holy grail since childhood. Herschel Bernardi passed away in 1986 when Michael was only two years old, but he has always found a connection to his father and his artistic family through the magic of theatre. He is honored to have had the opportunity to share a story so steeped in his family’s history, to have the chance to continue their memory in the name of ‘tradition’…

And so, this a Bernardi tale: Michael and Herschel. You could say it’s about two actors who tragically never met. Or you could say it’s about a father and son whose bond was nothing less than beshert.

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And now, 5 questions Michael Bernardi has never been asked:

Michael Bernardi
Michael Bernardi. Photo credit: Jeremy Folmer.

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

My acting teacher at SUNY Purchase, and one of the last grand dames of the golden age of theater, the late, great Joan Potter, once stopped me within moments of beginning a love scene and asked, “What are you doing?” I timidly replied, “Trying to get [my scene partner] to reciprocate my love?” Joan shook her head with dismissal. “What are you doing?,” she asked again. “Trying to show that I’m capable of earning her love?” Again, she shook, “No my dear, that’s an idea. What are you doing?” Feeling at a loss, I hesitated and said, “I’m tidying up her apartment in order to give her a sense of what our home life would be?” Joan said, “Close, but no cigar. What are you doing?” Defeated, I said, “Fluffing her pillows?” Joan smiled. “Yes. Fluff the pillows. Do the doing, and let the scene take place. One day you’ll realize how simple all this can be.”

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

I don’t believe there are “idiotic” questions when it comes to acting. There are so many factors to creating a performance that even the most seemingly innocuous questions have the potential to reveal something deeper. Even the seemingly simple question every actor has heard — “How do you remember all your lines?” — has merit. A mentor told me the story of Anthony Hopkins’ response at an acting seminar. The host asked, “What’s the best advice you can give to people pursuing acting?” He responded, “Know your lines.” The crowd laughed, thinking he was making a joke. Hopkins then elaborated: “Know your lines. Don’t just memorize them, know them in your bones, then you’re free.”

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

I’ve always thought it strange when someone asks, “What do you prefer, comedy or drama?” It’s a common question, but I don’t think it’s my position to decide whether a piece is comedic or dramatic. Any time I’ve tried to punch the comedy or milk the drama, I’m left feeling a little dirty. Some of the best laughs I have ever experienced came in moments of absurd levity in soul-shattering dramas, and some of the highest dramatic stakes I’ve ever felt came during the most bombastic farces. I once did a scene from The West Wing, and my character’s career was at stake. I got the direction to play the scene like I needed to go to the bathroom so bad I was about to crap my pants. Tears never came so easily.

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Michael Bernardi
Photo credit: Jeremy Folmer.

Tell us about how you auditioned for — and how you learned you were cast in — this new Broadway Fiddler.

I was living in LA, had recently dropped out of grad school, and was without representation. An old friend offered to direct me in Fiddler on the Roof at a summer stock theater in Massachusetts and wanted me to play Tevye. Despite plans to reengage with the LA TV/film scene, despite the production basically offering me only room and board, I didn’t hesitate, since it was a dream role and I never thought I’d get a chance to play Tevye until I was at least in my late 40s. Little did I know that preparing and performing the role would help heal decades of grief caused by my father’s absence and that the friendships created during the production would prove to be some of the most profound I’ve ever known.

A few weeks before we closed that Fiddler, I learned that [Broadway casting director] Bernie Telsey was casting this new Fiddler for Broadway. Because I was without representation, I began shamelessly reaching out to every person I could find to finagle an audition. No dice. I remembered that my Fiddler director — that old friend, Ron Fassler — interviewed [Fiddler lyricist] Sheldon Harnick a few months before and asked if he could send a brief opening night message to our cast for good luck. Sheldon had done so and it was still posted on our callboard. I then remembered that it was actually a print out of an email containing the message. I then remembered that emails include the sender’s email address. I then realized that I had Sheldon Harnick’s email address! So I immediately ran to the callboard, found the email address and composed an email to Sheldon. Without mentioning my desire to audition, I asked if he’d be available to possibly meet up in NY and maybe exchange a couple of stories about the good old days of Fiddler. No response. As each day passed, I’d see more press releases for roles getting cast for Broadway, and I could feel the window closing.

I could feel the window closing.

Then, in the most LA-fashion possible for someone wanting to audition for a Broadway musical, my mother told me that her hypnotist knew a manager in NY who could get me a self-tape audition. Gotta love it. I put myself on tape, sent it and waited. Weeks passed, with the only response that [director] Bart Sher was still in Europe. So, our Fiddler in Massachusetts closed and it was time for me to go back to LA. I then had an intuition to go to NY and see if something would happen. After a week in NY, nothing happened. My flight back to LA was in 48 hours and I asked myself a question: “What is in my power right now?” I decided it was finally time to do the crazy-actor move that everyone hears about but is always told not to do: I re-recorded my audition, assembled my headshot, resume, every review of my Fiddler, and a carefully written letter, put it all into a large yellow envelope and walked to the manager’s office. I greeted reception with dwindling confidence by the second:

I have never done this. My name is Michael Bernardi and I’d like to drop of this packet to be considered for Fiddler. I know it’s crazy but if I didn’t do everything in my power to be seen for this, I’d regret it for the rest of my life.

Surprisingly, they were very sweet and accepted my packet. I knew that whether or not it worked out, I’d have no regrets. After a week back in LA, I got a phone call that they wanted another tape (which would be the third), this time reading for Mordcha. At this time, Ron Fassler was back in LA as well, and we made the tape within hours and sent it that day. Two days later, on Wednesday, I got another call saying that the entire artistic team would be reviewing it on Friday, which was a good sign that I was being honestly considered. Thursday came and, as I was getting in my car, I noticed I had an email from the godfather himself: Sheldon Harnick. It read:

Hi, Michael: Sorry I didn’t get back to you before this. I’ve been commuting back and forth between NY and East Hampton. And when I’m in NY, there hasn’t been a minute to spare. However, it seems that you’re to be part of our Fiddler company so I’ll have the pleasure of spending time with you then! Sheldon.

Words cannot describe my elation. It was the culmination of so much heartbreak, finally justified in an instant. I had to wait another six days for the official offer, which I spent curled in a fetal position. But I’ve been on a cloud ever since.

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What relationship do you have with your father’s talent, career and legacy? What do you know of his take on Tevye? You also understudy Danny Burstein: If and when you ever perform Tevye on Broadway, how might your performance differ from Danny’s or your father’s?

Time to do the crazy-actor move.

I’ll say this: I believe each role has a kind of DNA that, through its expression, inter-splices with the actor who plays it and ultimately leaves its mark. Growing up without my father, I’ve spent a lot of time gathering puzzle pieces to put together a picture of who he really was. Once I played Tevye, I realized that the role was the piece that put the puzzle together for me because Tevye ultimately defined who my father was. Tevye opens up your heart; he inspires curiosity, gregariousness, compassion and a lust for life, all characteristics my father was known for by his friends and family.

My grandfather, Beryl, passed when my father was 8, and I’ve been told that my father associated the memory of Beryl with the role of Tevye. In the same way, my father’s memory inspires my take on Tevye. But, ultimately, I truly believe it’s actually the role of Tevye itself that fathered both of us. I feel that brotherhood with Danny, Adam Grupper — our brilliant Rabbi, who also understudies Tevye — and anyone else who “biddied and bummed.” Tevye is the teacher and I couldn’t be a more grateful student.

Bonus question:

In another time, another world, you’re granted five minutes of private dialogue with your father. You may ask three questions of any type or scope. What would your three questions be — and how would your father answer them?

Michael: What’s your favorite joke?
Herschel: The one about the parrot but I don’t remember the punchline. Sorry, kid.

Michael: Does it get any easier?
Herschel: Why would you want it to be easy? It’s a ride; there can be no gain without loss.

Michael: How would my life be different if you could’ve stayed?
Herschel: No one can answer that. We probably would have had a lot of fun together, but ultimately it’s up to you to define who you are, not me or anybody else. And yes, I love you very much.