MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Mahopac’s Steven Skybell has been able to make a comfortable living as an actor—both on stage and in film—but he’s never quite reached the level of “celebrity.” And that’s just fine with him.
“I’m not a celebrity,” he says with a laugh. “Not being able to go anywhere is not something that I think would be much fun. I am very happy with the way it’s panned out. [A desire to become an actor] was not fueled by fame.”
But that might all be coming to end. Skybell stars in the iconic role of Tevye in the groundbreaking Yiddish-language production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” directed by Joel Grey, now showing at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. Stellar reviews and nightly sold-out performances have led to the production twice being extended beyond its original run.
“I’ve always been a supporting actor so ‘Fiddler’ is one of the things that has gotten me the most attention,” Skybell said. “I am starting to get recognized on the subway.”
Skybell has lived in Mahopac since 1997, but he grew up in Lubbock, Texas.
“It was a small town, but it had Texas Tech and a community theater and a children’s theater,” he said. “That’s where I got my start [in acting], when I was 10 years old, and one of the first roles I had was a peasant boy in ‘Fiddler on the Road.’”
He said he knew early on that he wanted a career in acting.
“I just wanted to do it,” Skybell said. “I asked [my parents] if I could do the children’s theater. I also teach now and tell my students that ever since I was 10 what drew me to the theater was the aspect of pretending. That hasn’t changed. I knew back then that it was something that interested me, and my parents supported me.”
He went to Yale and got a master’s degree in acting and hasn’t looked back. Although he admits, there has been a bit of luck and serendipity involved.
“Thankfully I have been able to make a living with it,” he said. “Luck is a great part of this profession. My third year at the Yale School of Drama, we did two plays by Eugene O’Neill, starring Colleen Dewhurst, and Jason Robards—‘Long Day’s Journey into Night,’ and ‘Ah, Wilderness,’ and those plays [moved] to Broadway. I had a small part in ‘Ah, Wilderness,’ so I just went with [the production]. It was a fairytale story. I made my Broadway debut on my 26th birthday. So, check that box. But I quickly found [Broadway] is a finicky mistress. The play only lasted for six weeks.”
Skybell has also appeared on the silver screen, although, he says, he prefers the theater.
“The highest profile movie I did was Tim Robbins’ ‘The Cradle Will Rock.’ My first film out of drama school was Arthur Miller’s ‘Everybody Wins,’” he said. “Film is a different beast, there is not as much formal rehearsal time. I enjoy rehearsing. And I like theater for the live aspect with the audience. With TV and film, you are more in a vacuum.”
His performance as Tevye, a poor milkman struggling to maintain Jewish customs and traditions with his three oldest daughters, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, is not his first time in the role. He was just 17 when he first took it on while at the Interlocken Music Camp in Michigan. He played it again while attending Yale. Two years ago, he played the role of Lazar Wolf in the Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“But I always dreamed of playing Tevye when I was age-appropriate,” he said.
But more than that, what makes his current performance even more special is that this version of “Fiddler” is done entirely in Yiddish.
“The opportunity to play him, age-appropriate, especially in Yiddish, is something I am so proud of doing,” he said,
Skybell has performed plenty of Shakespeare throughout his career and he equates the role of Tevye to Hamlet.
“I’ve played Hamlet and when I started looking at the role [of Tevye], I was struck by the fact that it is a humongous role; he barely leaves the stage—just like Hamlet,” he said. “The size of the role is Shakespearian. It’s a three-hour play, which by today’s standards would be unacceptable. But the emotional range the character goes through is exhaustive and demanding. I definitely have to replenish my electrolytes when it’s over.”
Skybell said that despite the fact that the play is in Yiddish—the first time that’s ever been done in the U.S.— it continues to sell out night after night, attracting both Jews and non-Jews.
“Every time we extend the run, it is sold out,” he said. “People are yearning for this experience; this is a rare opportunity.”
Skybell came to the role already having a firm grasp of the language. He and his brother would casually practice it with each other during phone conversations. Then, while performing “Wicked” in Chicago, he took some formal lessons.
“I had a lot of downtime and so I had Yiddish lessons with a professor from Northwestern University,” he said. “I knew of the wealth of Yiddish plays in New York City alone and I knew someday I might do something and connect to the Yiddish theater. It’s no lie; it was always in the back of my head.”
The production does have supertitles in English and Russian projected on screens above the stage to help out the uninitiated.
“We have had a fair number of celebrities come to the show and Christina Ebersol came and was moved to tears,” he said. “She came backstage and addressed the cast. She equated [the show] to something out of the Bible. It is a deep experience to watch these characters wrestle with the issues of their time and there is a communal response that transcends the knowledge of the language.”
Meanwhile, Skybell says he loves his adopted hometown of Mahopac. He discovered it more than 20 years ago when a friend of his partner, Michael Cole, invited them to come and share a home she was renting on Kirk Lake. That eventually led Skybell and Cole to buy a place of their own on Lake Mahopac.
“I love the Mahopac experience,” Skybell said. “It’s no-nonsense; it isn’t over-cultivated like some of the places in Westchester. The lakes are stunningly beautiful. The traffic may be a little worse since we first came, but I love the people. It’s a special place. It has retained its simple beauty. I don’t mind the commute [to the city] and love waking up on the lake. I love the life we’ve created here.”
“Fiddler on The Roof” performances run through Oct. 25 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (36 Battery Place, near First Place), though there could be another extension. Tickets are $75 and up. For more information, go to www.NYTF.org or call 866-811-4111.