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Nehemiah Persoff, a charter member of the Actors Studio who appeared in dozens of notable films and TV shows, from Some Like It Hot and On the Waterfront to The Twilight Zone and The Untouchables, has died. He was 102.
Persoff died Tuesday night at an acute care facility in San Luis Obispo, California, his son Dan told The Hollywood Reporter.
The prolific character actor also portrayed Henry Fonda’s brother-in-law in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956), Humphrey Bogart’s partner in the boxing business in The Harder They Fall (1957), the ruthless chieftain Graile in Michael Curtiz’s The Comancheros (1961), an eccentric physicist in The Power (1968) and a poverty-stricken Jew trying to flee Hitler in Voyage of the Damned (1976).
Barbra Streisand cast the Jerusalem native in her musical drama Yentl (1983) as her father, who secretly tutors her character in the Talmud. His death triggers her to disguise herself as a man and enroll in a religious school.
“One day before filming, Barbra invited me for tea in her house in London. … She told me about losing her father at the tender age of two, of her early years in Brooklyn, and so on. She said, ‘Let’s read,'” he recalled in a 2008 interview for Films of the Golden Age.
“As we read, I looked at her and thought, ‘What courage you have to take on this film, to write, direct, act and sing.’ I read, ‘Yentl, I’m so proud of you,’ and at that moment, the emotion welled up in me.”
He had told this story in 2001 when Streisand received her Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. “I felt [it] needed a lift,” he said, “so I added, ‘Barbra, for almost 20 years, you’ve been like a real daughter to me — you don’t call, you don’t write.”
In Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), Persoff stood tall as Little Bonaparte, a gangster chairing a mob meeting disguised as a Friends of Italian Opera Lovers’ convention. (His character bears a striking resemblance to Benito Mussolini and comes with a name that references Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar.)
Indeed, Persoff portrayed many criminals during his six-decade career, including Johnny Torrio, mentor to Rod Steiger’s gangster boss in Capone (1959), and Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik, causing trouble on the 1959-63 ABC drama The Untouchables.
In Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1955), audiences got a glimpse of Persoff as the cab driver in the iconic “I cudda been a contender” scene between Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger. (He got $75 for that gig.)
The two stars were in the back seat of a sawed-off car, Persoff told Nick Thomas in 2014. “I sat on a milk box with Brando and Steiger behind me. When it was time for my close-up, Kazan whispered in my ear to imagine that ‘the guy behind you killed your mother.’ When I saw the film, I was surprised to see how effective the close-up turned out.”
In 1959’s “Judgment Night,” the 10th episode of CBS’ The Twilight Zone, Persoff starred as a U-Boat captain condemned to a horrible, recurring afterlife after he orders the sinking of a British cargo liner in 1942.
In more light-heartened turns, Persoff voiced the violin-playing Papa Mousekewitz in An American Tail (1986) and its sequels and an exiled Latin American dictator named Pancho Hernando Gonzalez Enriques Rodriguez on Gilligan’s Island on a 1965 episode said to be series creator Sherwood Schwartz’s favorite.
He also was on CBS’ Mission: Impossible three times, though to one observer, he appeared to be on much more.
“Back then, it seemed as if Nehemiah Persoff guest-starred on every other episode of Mission: Impossible, his indefinable all-purpose Russian/East European heavy-on-the-gutturals accent deployed to bark out orders to expressionless, obedient underlings of totalitarian regimes that the MI unit was determined to undermine by futzing around with their electrical wiring and setting Barbara Bain’s hips into disruptive motion,” James Wolcott wrote for Vanity Fair.
He was born in Jerusalem on Aug. 2, 1919. His father, a silversmith and painter, brought the family to the U.S. in 1929, and Persoff served in the U.S. Army and worked as an electrician for the New York subway system.
He demonstrated some acting skills during his bar mitzvah, he wrote in his 2021 autobiography, The Many Faces of Nehemiah.
“I recited the portion I knew by heart, and I ad-libbed,” he wrote. “I double-talked the rest, thinking that chances are the people did not understand Hebrew.” When someone in the congregation asked, “What? What did he say?” another replied, “Sha, the boy is from Jerusalem, this is the real Hevreet from Yerushalayim.”
After work in summer stock, Persoff, in 1947, received an invitation to come to the first meeting of the new Actors Studio, led by Kazan. “I took my seat on a bench and slowly looked around,” he recalled in a 2010 interview with Herb Shadrak for Cinema Retro. “There were John Garfield, Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Montgomery Clift, Kim Hunter and Maureen Stapleton, among others.
“Kazan began to speak and told us his aim was to create a group of actors who work as he does, who speak his language, and that the people assembled in this room were the cream of the talent available. This was heady stuff for a nearly starving young actor.”
Persoff appeared for the first time on Broadway in 1947’s Galileo, starring Charles Laughton, and a few months later returned to the New York stage for Sundown Beach, directed by Kazan. Also, in 1948, he fleetingly showed up in Jules Dassin’s film noir classic The Naked City. (He would also act in six episodes of the ABC series based on the film.)
From 1949-59, Persoff was in 11 Broadway plays, including Peter Pan with Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff, Peer Gynt with Garfield, and Tiger at the Gates with Michael Redgrave.
“When I was onstage I felt at home, as if I belonged there,” he said. “I always felt I could match or even better any actor I worked with, whether it was Steiger, Bogart, [James] Cagney, Greer Garson or whoever.”
His big-screen résumé also included This Angry Age (1957), Never Steal Anything Small (1959), Green Mansions (1959), The Hook (1963), Fate Is the Hunter (1964), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), The People Next Door (1970), Psychic Killer (1975), Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Twins (1988) and 4 Faces (1999).
His body of work on television also was deep, with appearances in Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Route 66, Burke’s Law, The Big Valley, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, Mannix, Gunsmoke, Hawaii Five-0, Barney Miller, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Columbo, Doogie Howser, M.D. and L.A. Law.
Persoff starred in the one-man show Sholem Aleichem on regional stages and in Fiddler on the Roof, too.
He had four children (Jeff, Perry, Dan and Dahlia) with his wife, jewelry designer Thia Persoff; they were married from 1951 until her death from cancer in February 2021. He also is survived by his grandchildren, Bridget, Stacey, Joey, Michelle and Jacqueline.
Persoff retired from acting in 1999 to concentrate on painting, working in an outdoor studio space at his Cambria home near the California coast.
“It was a wonderful 60 years,” he said, “but at this time in my life, I love solving problems on the canvas; trying to find the beauty and essence of a subject. I feel very fortunate in being able to continue my creative life, but this time without the tension, frustration and conflicts of an acting career.”
Rhett Bartlett contributed to this report.
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