Nehemiah Persoff, one of Hollywood's busiest actors, dies at 102 – The Washington Post

Nehemiah Persoff, a late-blooming actor who constructed one of many busiest careers in Hollywood, enjoying rogues, ringleaders, revolutionaries and refugees — amongst different memorable portraits of sympathy and villainy — in additional than 200 movie and TV roles, died April 5 at a care heart in San Luis Obispo, Calif. He was 102.
The trigger was congestive coronary heart failure, stated his son Jeff.
A self-described “robust child from the streets,” Mr. Persoff grew up in Brooklyn throughout the Despair and was working as a subway electrician within the late Thirties when — having shaved his head for aid from the summer season warmth — he caught the eye of an off-Broadway producer wanting so as to add “native colour” to his manufacturing.
Mr. Persoff agreed to seem onstage and located the expertise thrilling, an escape from his mundane existence. In 1948, after Military service in World Warfare II, he turned an early member of the Actors Studio, a workshop in New York based by director Elia Kazan and different outstanding figures in theater.
From that elite coaching floor, Mr. Persoff, already approaching 30, launched a prolific profession within the early days of TV. Together with his stocky construct, unnerving gaze, 5 o’clock shadow and tightly wound power, Mr. Persoff specialised in portraying gangland figures, Wild West desperados, bellicose generalissimos and Chilly Warfare heavies.
Buying and selling his grimace for a heat smile on his broad, expressive face, he additionally performed males of the material and workaday laborers in disaster. Like his Actors Studio classmate Eli Wallach, who was additionally Jewish, he was in fixed demand to play ethnic characters together with Egyptians, Moroccans, Greeks, Italians and Russians.
His TV profession was so prodigious within the Fifties and ’60s that he often raced between units for episodes of such exhibits as “Rawhide,” “Route 66” and “America Metal Hour” — switching wardrobes, hairpieces, prosthetic options, mannerisms and accents at a frantic tempo. Though a jovial and peaceful presence off-screen, he was admired for his means to faucet into reservoirs of anger, particularly when enjoying characters with a powerful streak of rebelliousness in opposition to authority.
“If a personality is inside my vary, then I can discover him inside myself,” he advised the Los Angeles Instances in 1958. “This character is me beneath completely different circumstances. Logic is all the time on the facet of a personality. It’s as much as me to rationalize the validity of his motion.”
In two of his most acclaimed roles of the interval — each in 1959 on the dramatic anthology present “Playhouse 90” — he performed Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in a teleplay referred to as “The Killers of Mussolini” and the melancholy Spanish guerrilla Pablo in an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
“Bearded, boorish and beat, he swiped the present out from everybody else,” United Press Worldwide TV critic William Ewald wrote of Mr. Persoff’s portrayal of Pablo in a solid that included Jason Robards, Maureen Stapleton, Maria Schell and Wallach. “He caught magnificently the minglement of barbarity and civilization, butcher and shattered hero.”
On “The Twilight Zone,” Mr. Persoff portrayed the skipper of a German U-boat that assaults a British freighter in World Warfare II with out warning. The sub sinks the helpless ship, the sub’s crew machine-guns the survivors and the skipper is doomed to relive the episode, from the opposite facet, for eternity.
He turned a daily visitor star on such disparate exhibits as “Gilligan’s Island,” enjoying an exiled tinhorn autocrat named Pancho Hernando Gonzalez Enriques Rodriguez, and “The Untouchables,” as an Al Capone mob affiliate named Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik.
He made an indelible impression in filmmaker Billy Wilder’s celebrated comedian romp “Some Prefer it Scorching” (1959). Because the crime boss Little Bonaparte — standing beneath a banner inscribed with “Associates of Italian Opera” — he proudly pronounces to an meeting of crime syndicate members: “In duh lass fissel yr, we made 100 an’ twelve million {dollars} earlier than taxes — solely we ain’t payin’ no taxes!” He wears a listening to support that he turns off when a twig of bullets rubs out his rivals.
His later movie roles included the excessive priest Shemiah within the all-star biblical epic “The Best Story Ever Advised” (1965), a Jewish refugee in flight from the Nazis in “Voyage of the Damned” (1976), Barbra Streisand’s scholarly and caring father within the film musical “Yentl” (1983), and the scientist behind a eugenics experiment within the comedy “Twins” (1988), starring Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger because the unlikeliest of siblings. He additionally was the voice of the animated mouse patriarch Papa Mousekewitz in “An American Tail” (1986) and its movie sequels.
After struggling a stroke at 70, Mr. Persoff slowed down his appearing profession and took up watercolors — approaching the brand new medium with the identical depth he channeled into his appearing. He labored night time and day, he stated, and amassed a portfolio of greater than 250 work.
He likened his new artwork kind to the outdated one.
“Once I received a job, I set my sights on having the ability to get beneath the pores and skin of the character,” he advised interviewer Nick Thomas. “It’s the identical with portray. Whenever you sit in entrance of a clean canvas, there’s a feeling of ‘I can’t do it’ for a lot of painters. However due to my appearing expertise, I all the time felt that I might do it, and I did.”
Mr. Persoff was born in Jerusalem — quickly to turn into a part of the British mandate of Palestine — on Aug. 2, 1919. His father, a coppersmith and jeweler, settled together with his household in Brooklyn a decade later. Mr. Persoff, often called Nicky in america, described his household as impoverished however tightknit.
He attended the Hebrew Technical Institute, a vocational highschool in Manhattan, earlier than doing sign upkeep for town subway system. After working with novice theater troupes, he auditioned for the New Theatre League appearing college, the place he was advised that he might attend without spending a dime in alternate for fixing any damaged lights.
Whereas finding out on the Actors Studio, alongside Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, he had supporting roles on Broadway earlier than Kazan tapped him to play a mobbed-up cabbie within the film drama “On the Waterfront” (1954). Because the sinister cabdriver, he witnesses the well-known “I coulda been a contender” speech by ex-boxer Terry Malloy (performed by Brando) after which takes Malloy’s corrupt older brother, Charley (performed by Rod Steiger), for his last trip.
“There have been Brando and Steiger within the again part of a sawed-off automobile,” Mr. Persoff advised Thomas. “I sat on a milk field with Brando and Steiger behind me. When it was time for my close-up, Kazan whispered in my ear to think about that ‘the man behind you killed your mom.’ Once I noticed the movie, I used to be stunned to see how efficient the close-up turned out.”
Mr. Persoff performed the right-hand man to Steiger’s corrupt boxing promoter in “The Tougher They Fall” (1956) and a jittery sergeant blown up by a land mine within the Korean Warfare movie “Males in Warfare” (1957), amongst different small however standout film roles.
His profession continued at a relentless tempo by way of the Eighties, after which he made occasional appearances on “Legislation & Order,” “Chicago Hope” and different collection. His last position, in 2003, was as a rabbi within the HBO manufacturing of “Angels in America,” primarily based on Tony Kushner’s play in regards to the AIDS epidemic. He additionally toured the nation for years in a one-man present, “Sholem Aleichem,” telling tales by the Yiddish humorist and enjoying a few of his characters, and he wrote a memoir, “The Many Faces of Nehemiah,” revealed in 2021.
His spouse, Thia Persov, a distant cousin, died in 2021 after 69 years of marriage. Along with his son Jeff, survivors embrace three different youngsters, Dan, Perry and Dahlia; and 5 grandchildren.
Reflecting on his prolific profession, he advised writer Darryl Lyman for the e-book “Nice Jews within the Performing Arts” that he noticed his work ethic as a rebuke to Adolf Hitler and the antisemitism that persevered lengthy after the Nazi dictator’s defeat.
“I think that some of the highly effective forces shaping my life once I was rising up in the usA. was that German with the small mustache who questioned the suitable of my folks — and due to this fact me — to reside,” he stated. “I used to be then decided to develop no matter expertise I needed to show worthy of the present of life.”


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