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Fiddler Actress, Sondheim Casting Director Was 92 – The Hollywood Reporter

Joanna Merlin, who created the role of the daughter Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway and served as a casting director for Stephen Sondheim, Harold Prince and Bernardo Bertolucci, has died. She was 92.

Merlin died Sunday in Los Angeles of complications from myelodysplastic syndrome, a bone marrow disorder, her daughters, documentary filmmaker Rachel Dretzin (Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey) and actress Julie Dretzin (The Handmaid’s Tale), announced.

Merlin also portrayed the dance teacher Miss Berg in Alan Parker’s Fame (1980) and recurred as Judge Lena Petrovsky for more than a decade on NBC’s Law and Order: SVU.

Her acting résumé included the films Hester Street (1975), All That Jazz (1979), Baby It’s You (1983), The Killing Fields (1984), Mystic Pizza (1988), Class Action (1991) and City of Angels (1998) and such TV shows as Naked City, The Defenders, East Side/West Side, Homeland and The Good Wife.

Merlin cast the original Broadway productions of Sondheim’s Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and Merrily We Roll Along as well as Lilian Hellman’s Candide, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita and Prince’s On the Twentieth Century.

She also cast John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986), James Ivory’s Jefferson in Paris (1995) and the Bertolucci-directed Oscar best picture winner The Last Emperor (1987), for which she won the Artios Award from the Casting Society of America.

The second child of Russian Jewish immigrants Toni Merlin (a sculptor) and Harry Ratner (a grocer), Joann Ratner was born in Chicago on July 15, 1931. She and her family relocated to L.A., where she graduated from Fairfax High School and attended UCLA.

Her daughters noted that she and her sister, Harriet, were raised in a politically progressive home where their parents were involved in the early labor movement and supported evolving movements for racial equality and women’s rights. It was an upbringing that impacted both sisters and was reflected in their own social activism, they said.

As a young actress in Hollywood, Merlin — who took her mom’s maiden name as her stage name — studied with Michael Chekhov, the celebrated actor and director from the Moscow Art Theatre who had fled political repression in the 1920s. She was a member of Chekhov’s acting studio for five years and his last living student.

Merlin made her onscreen debut in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), and her Broadway bow came five years later in Becket opposite Laurence Olivier. She began playing Tzeitel, the eldest daughter in Fiddler, on Broadway in 1964.

In 2008, Merlin produced, co-wrote and starred in the one-woman film Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn, which she and director Ragnar Freidank adapted from a play by Ellen Cassedy.

Merlin in the 1980s co-founded the Non-Traditional Casting Project, which became the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts and was honored at the 2011 Tony Awards. And in 1999, she launched the Michael Chekhov Association (MICHA) to preserve and share his legacy and practice. Since its start, it has trained more than 2,000 actors, directors and teachers around the world.

A longtime faculty member of Grad Acting program at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Merlin is the author of Auditioning: An Actor-Friendly Guide, which contains a foreword by Prince and has been continuously in print since its first publication in 2001.

Her husband of 42 years, attorney David Dretzin, died in 2006, and her sister, who famously pushed Charles M. Schulz to add a Black character — Franklin — to his Peanuts cartoon strip, died in 2020.

In addition to her daughters, survivors include Julie’s husband, writer-director-producer Sam Catlin (Preacher, Breaking Bad); Rachel’s husband, producer Barak Goodman (American Experience); and grandchildren Noah, Jesse, Ruby, Ben and Eli.

Plans for a memorial will be announced.