Director Norman Jewison was brought into the project by executives at United Artists who thought he was Jewish. His first words to the executives upon meeting them were, "You know I'm not Jewish, right?"
The title comes from a painting by Russian artist Marc Chagall called "The Dead Man" which depicts a funeral scene and shows a man playing a violin on a rooftop. It is also used by Tevye in the story as a metaphor for trying to survive in a difficult, constantly changing world.
To get the look he wanted for the film, director Norman Jewison told director of photography Oswald Morris, who was famous for shooting color films in unusual styles, to shoot the film in an earthy tone. Morris saw a woman wearing brown nylon hosiery, and thought; "that's the tone we want," and asked the woman for the stockings on the spot (and shot the entire film with a stocking over the lens). The weave can be detected in some scenes.
Several times during the film, people touch a box on the door frame of a house. This is a Mezuzah; a case which contains a passage from the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and and 11:13-21), which Jews traditionally affix to the door frames of their houses as a constant reminder of God's presence.
Director of Photography, Oswald Morris was prevented from attending the Academy Awards ceremony by the producers of the film he was currently working on, who would not give him time off to attend. He was woken up in the early hours of the morning in London by a telephone call from the producer to tell him he had just won the Oscar for Best Cinematography.
The cart-horse, nicknamed "Shmuel" by the cast, was purchased from a lot destined for a Zagreb glue factory. After production Norman Jewison paid a local farmer to keep him for the rest of his natural life, which was another three years.
Many devotees of the Broadway show were annoyed that Zero Mostel (who originated the role so famously on the Broadway stage) was not cast as Tevye in this film. The filmmakers decided the film needed to be more realistic, so a more "believeable" actor was hired, with Norman Jewison explaining: "one reason I liked Topol's performance so much on the stage was that he projected his sense of destiny as, and pride in being, a Jew. His Tevye never loses dignity and strength; he is a man who knows who he is and where he's going."
It was only because President Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia was a huge movie fan that he allowed the film to be made in his country. His Russian counterparts were less pleased, as the film is openly critical of the pogroms.
To create the correct air of authenticity, production designer Robert F. Boyle studied the plans of over 100 turn-of-the-century Ukrainian synagogues before designing the one which appears in the film.
The production design department scoured Europe for a location which was similar to what pre-Revolution Russia looked like. Because the filmmakers' weren't allowed to shoot in the Soviet Union (specifically in Ukraine, where the story takes place in a pre-Revolution shtetl - village south of Kiev) the producers eventually found what they required in rural Yugoslavia (now Croatia). Most of the villages had been destroyed by 1919, after the Russian civil war, during which hundreds of thousands of Jews were displaced and massacred, thus the end of shtetl life.
Topol was nominated for the 1991 Tony Award (New York City) for Actor in a Musical for "Fiddler on the Roof" for recreating his film role of Tevye and is still performing the role in regional theater (2009). Rosalind Harris, who plays Tevye's oldest daughter, Tzeitel, in the film, played Tevye's wife, Golde, in the 1991 Broadway revival with Topol.
"Tevye's Dream" is presented in a desaturated image rather than full color to make it look like a black-and-white dream sequence. There is a full-color version of the song, however, which can be viewed on the Special Edition DVD.
The Broadway stage production of "Fiddler on the Roof" opened at the Imperial Theater in New York on September 22, 1964, and ran for 3,242 performances, setting a record for the longest-running show on Broadway, passing "Life With Father", which held the record for 25 years. In the original cast as Tevye was Zero Mostel. Bea Arthur, best known to audiences as Maude Findlay from the series Maude (1972) as well as portraying Dorothy on TV's The Golden Girls (1985), played Yente. "Fiddler on the Roof" won the 1965 Tony Awards (New York City) for Best Musical, Best Author, and Best Score. The original Broadway production is the 15th longest running show ever.
By the early 1970s Hollywood roadshow presentations (especially musicals) were now no longer popular with critics and audiences. Recent musicals, including Camelot (1967), Doctor Dolittle (1967) were not as captivating, realistic,, as the film adaptations of Broadway musicals, had been. Those successful film adaptations, include; West Side Story (1961), The Music Man (1962), Mary Poppins (1964), were in the 1960s, so Norman Jewison, Walter Mirisch and United Artists were worried how the film would do once it got released. When it was released in 1971 it defied naysayers and received critical acclaim and became the highest-grossing film of the year, besting films like Shaft (1971), Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), and the Academy Award-winning The French Connection (1971).
While the film's script remained very close to the original stage musical, it also capitalized on the vast possibilities offered by the medium itself. "In the theater, it is easier to accept a stylized, unreal atmosphere; film introduces the real world, with real scenery and real sounds," director Norman Jewison explained. "In film today it is very difficult to use music and poetry and to suspend audiences' disbelief, as The Wizard of Oz (1939) once did so perfectly."
Zero Mostel, who created the role of Tevye on Broadway, was reportedly bitter he did not play the role in the movie. Years later, when his son Josh Mostel received a phone call offering him the role of Blotto in the TV series Delta House (1979), he reportedly yelled; "tell them to ask Topol's son if he wants the job!"
According to the Casting Notes on the special edition DVD, Richard Dreyfuss, Scott Glenn and John Ritter all had appointments (probably for auditions, as character names were listed) for various roles including Motel, Perchik, and Fyedka. Also listed for probable auditions are Rob Reiner for Motel; Leland Palmer for Hodel and Tzeitel; Richard Thomas for Fyedka; Katey Sagal for an unspecified role; and Talia Shire (listed on the appointment sheet as Talia Coppola) for Hodel and Tzeitel. As the auditions were held in January 1970, most were very early in their careers.
The film originally began with the 1968 United Artists logo, accompanied by a timpani piece, composed by John Williams. It was also seen on early television broadcasts, as well as on the RCA CED VideoDisc version in early 1981. It has been lost to the ravages of time, due to Transamerica Corporation no longer being associated with United Artists.
Leonard Frey, who plays Motel, had previously been in the original Broadway production of the show as Mendel, the Rabbi's son. Similarly, Zvee Scooler, who plays the Rabbi here, was in the original play as Mordcha, the innkeeper.
Lillian Michelson, an uncredited movie researcher, who on previous projects could track down pictures of historical items needed for recreation in movies, met a challenge because there were no photos of 'Jewish girls' underwear from the 1890s'. She went to a Jewish restaurant and asked some older women from the time if anybody remembered what they looked like, one woman told her to stay right there, she was going to go to her apartment, 'And cut you out a pattern, because we had to sew our underwear back then'.