Herschel Bernardi



  • Birth Name: Harold Peter Topf
  • Height: 5' 11" (1.8 m)


The character actor Herschel Bernardi was born into a theatrical family on October 30, 1923, in New York, New York. The Yiddish-language theater in the United States was centered in New York City’s Lower East Side, on Second Avenue, and the Bernardi family were stage people who plied their craft in Yiddish, as did the Adler Family (Jacob and his children Luther and Stella), Paul Muni and the young Sidney Lumet. The young Herschel was a trouper and appeared on the stage as a child and as a teenager. As a teen, he appeared in the movies Green Fields (1937) and Yankel the Blacksmith (1939), which were shot in Yiddish and directed by future Hollywood B-movie helmer Edgar Ulmer. The adult Bernardi, who briefly used the name “Harold” professionally in place of the more ethnic-sounding “Herschel,” appeared in bit parts in Hollywood B pictures. In the early 1950s, his movie and television career suffered when he was blacklisted for alleged leftist sympathies. He was forced to go through the process of being “cleared” by the professional anti-Communist witch-hunters, who made a profit from the blacklist. After being cleared, Bernardi began to work steadily on TV, in the movies and on the stage. In 1958, he made his first impact on popular American culture as Lieutenant Jacoby, the hapless policeman who was a friend of Craig Stevens’s eponymous private detective Peter Gunn (1958) in Blake Edwards’ influential TV series. “Peter Gunn” was heavily indebted to film noir, German expression, and California cool jazz, and the contrast of the harassed Jacoby with the coolly patrician Gunn was part of the dynamic that drove the series. For his role as Lt. Jacoby, Herschel Bernardi received his sole Emmy nomination, in 1959. Possessed of a resonant voice, Bernardi did a lot of voice over work on television, providing the “Ho ho ho!” of the Jolly Green Giant and the voice of Charley the Tuna in TV commercials. Most famously, he used his singing voice to take over for Zero Mostel as Tevye the milkman in the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof (1971), which was a smash hit when it debuted in 1964. In addition to two stints on Broadway, in both the original show and the revival, Bernardi played Tevye in several road show tours. He was nominated for a Tony in the Broadway revival. He received his first Tony nomination in 1969 for playing the lead in the musical “Zorba.” Off the Broadway stage, Herschel Bernadi was a supporting character owing to his average if not downright homely face. Yet in 1970, Bernardi finally played a leading man in a filmed entertainment when he was cast as Arnie Nuovo, an ethnic blue-collar worker who is promoted off of the loading dock into management by an eccentric business owner. As the eponymous Arnie (1970), Bernardi was twice nominated for a Golden Globe. The series was canceled after two seasons. Bernardi continued to find steady work as a character actor, mostly on TV. In 1976, he appeared in support of Woody Allen in Martin Ritt’s The Front (1976), a movie about the Hollywood blacklist that also featured another of the Big Three Tevyes, Zero Mostel. (Both Bernardi and Mostel were beaten out for the role in the Fiddler on the Roof (1971) movie by Topol, who received an Oscar nomination in the role and took over Bernardi’s place as Tevye in traveling road shows of “Fiddler on the Roof” after Bernardi’s death.) Mostel, like Ritt, had been blacklisted in the 1950s. Herschel Bernardi died on May 9, 1986, at the age of 62, still a working actor whose services had been in demand from childhood.