On April 5th prolific character actor Nehemiah Persoff passed away at the age of 102. Given his lengthy career and his long life, I wanted to share a few highlights about the man and his work.
Persoff, who was Jewish, was born on August 2, 1919 in Jerusalem, in what was then known as the British Mandate of Palestine. When he was 10 years old Persoff immigrated to the United States with the rest of his family.
Persoff initially trained as an electrician at the Hebrew Technical Institute in New York City, from which he graduated in 1937. However he was possessed of a love of acting, and when drafted into the United States Army during World War II he was part of an acting company that entertained soldiers overseas. In 1947 Persoff was accepted into the Actors Studio in Manhattan, and a year later he began his professional career.
As with many foreign-born actors in the American movie and television industry in the mid 20th Century, Persoff was cast as a wide variety of ethnicities & nationalities, and frequently portrayed villainous roles. Most notably, between 1959 and 1962 Persoff guest starred in six episodes of the Prohibition era crime drama The Untouchables, three of those featuring him as Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik, financial advisor and bagman to Chicago mob boss Al Capone.
Another of Persoff’s memorable television appearances was The Twilight Zone episode “Judgment Night” written by Rod Serling and broadcast in December 1959. He played Carl Lanser, a ruthless Nazi U-boat captain who is now doomed to spend all of eternity trapped on the British cargo liner he ordered destroyed in 1942.
Among the other genre roles Persoff was cast in were brilliant South American scientist Professor Moreno in the Wonder Woman episode “Formula 407” (1977), the supreme leader of the totalitarian Eastern Alliance in the Battlestar Galactica episode “Experiment in Terra” (1979) and Palor Toff, a very odd-looking alien merchant & collector of rare items in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Most Toys” (1990).
As he grew older, Persoff was afforded more opportunities to portray sympathetic roles, and was often cast as characters who shared his own real-life Jewish heritage, something that was of great personal importance to him. He played a Jewish refugee fleeing from Nazi oppression in the 1976 historical drama Voyage of the Damned and portrayed Rebbe Mendel, the father to Barbara Streisand’s character in the 1983 musical Yentl. Persoff later gave voice to another Jewish patriarch, Papa Mousekewitz, in the 1986 animated movie An American Tail and its three sequels.
Persoff’s acting career lasted thru 1999. After suffering from a stroke he retired, but he then took up watercolor painting, on which he spent the next two decades. He also wrote an autobiography, The Many Faces of Nehemiah, which was published in 2021.
Persoff met his future wife Thia during a visit to Israel in 1951. They married later that year and remained together until her own passing in 2021.
Interviewed in 2008 by James Rosin for Films of the Golden Age, Persoff reflected on his lengthy acting career and his continued creative endeavors as a painter:
“It was a wonderful sixty years, but at this time in my life, I love solving problems on the canvas; trying to find the beauty and essence of a subject. It’s a fascinating, challenging, yet calming and most fulfilling process, finding colors that like each other, not only the basic colors, but the infiinite variations, starting with a fresh canvas and suddenly seeing it come alive. That gives one a tremendous feeling of satisfaction. 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.”