Broadway Star Joanna Merlin, Originator of Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof, Passes Away at 92
• Joanna Merlin, Broadway Star and Originator of the role of Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof passed away on Sunday at age 92.
• She was born Joann Ratner in Chicago in 1931 and made her screen debut in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956).
• After graduating from UCLA, she honed her acting skills under Michael Chekhov and began her career in theater with the 1961 production of Becket alongside Laurence Olivier.
• Taking on the role of Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof (1964), she captivated audiences with her portrayal of the eldest daughter.
• Transitioning to casting, Merlin successfully collaborated with Stephen Sondheim on various musicals and films such as Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Big Trouble in Little China, and The Last Emperor.
• In later years, Merlin appeared in All That Jazz (1979), Fame (1980), City of Angels (1998), Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999–2002) and had a faculty position at NYU Tisch’s graduate acting program for 25 years.
• Her work through acting workshops aimed to help
Joanna Merlin, the beloved actress who brought the character of Tzeitel to life in the iconic Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, passed away on Sunday at 92 in Los Angeles. The cause of her death has not yet been disclosed.
Announced on New York University’s Tisch graduate acting program’s Instagram page, where Merlin had been a faculty member for 25 years, her death is mourned by the acting community, especially those involved in Chekhovian theater. The program released a statement expressing their deep sadness and remembering Merlin’s incredible artistry.
Best recognized for her role in Fiddler on the Roof and collaboration with Stephen Sondheim, Merlin was born as Joann Ratner in Chicago in 1931. After graduating from UCLA, she honed her acting skills under the tutelage of Michael Chekhov. She made her screen debut in Cecil B. DeMille’s blockbuster film The Ten Commandments in 1956, followed by her appearance in Weddings and Babies and a few television series. However, she ultimately dedicated her career to theater.
Merlin’s Broadway journey began in 1961 as Gwendolyn in Becket alongside Laurence Olivier. After several notable performances, she took on the role of Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof in 1964, captivating audiences with her portrayal of the eldest daughter in the central family.
Transitioning from acting to casting, Merlin became renowned for her work in the 1970s and ’80s, collaborating with Stephen Sondheim on musicals like Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, and Into the Woods. She also cast productions such as Evita, On the Twentieth Century, and A Doll’s Life, as well as films like John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Academy Award-winning film The Last Emperor.
Despite her casting endeavors, Merlin still graced the screen with her acting talents, appearing in acclaimed movies like All That Jazz, Fame, Mystic Pizza, and City of Angels, as well as notable television shows like Law & Order, All My Children, Northern Exposure, The Good Wife, and Homeland. In later years, her most significant screen role came as Judge Lena Petrovsky on 43 episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Merlin joined the faculty of NYU Tisch’s graduate acting program in 1998 and founded the Michael Chekhov Association the following year, sharing her expertise through acting workshops.
In a 2013 interview with Backstage, Merlin reflected on her diverse career, acknowledging how each aspect of her work influenced and enriched others. She devoted her time to coaching actors and improving their audition techniques, aiming to help them thrive in the industry.
Her two children survive Joanna Merlin.