Nehemiah Persoff: 1919 to 2022

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.

Nehemiah Persoff in The Twilight Zone episode “Judgment Night” (1959)

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).

Nehemiah Persoff in the Wonder Woman episode “Formula 407” (1977)

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.”

Patrick Macnee: 1922 to 2015

I was sorry to learn that Patrick Macnee passed away on June 25th at the age of 93. Another actor whose work I grew up with is now gone.

Macnee was a prolific actor who made numerous television appearances over the decades.  He appeared on such diverse shows as The Twilight Zone, Columbo, The Love Boat, Nightman, Diagnosis Murder, Frasier and various TV movies & miniseries.

Macnee also had roles in a number of movies, most notably The Howling, This Is Spinal TapLobster Man From Mars, and the James Bond entry A View to a Kill.

Patrick Macnee John Steed

Amongst his various roles, Macnee will undoubtedly, and very deservedly, be remembered for his iconic portrayal of sophisticated secret agent John Steed from the British television series The Avengers, which aired on ITV from 1961 to 1969.  Macnee as Steed was instantly recognizable, clad in fashionable suits & bowler hat and toting a black umbrella.  A rather tongue-in-cheek espionage / adventure series, The Avengers featured Steed and his colleagues thwarting various outlandish (and occasionally sci-fi tinged) plots by Communist agents, mad scientists and eccentric criminal masterminds.

Macnee had several co-stars during the decade-long run of The Avengers, among them Honor Blackman and Linda Thorson.  He was especially effective in the two seasons when he shared the screen with Diana Rigg as Emma Peel (1965-67).  Macnee and Rigg possessed genuine chemistry.  The playful, witty banter between Steed and Peel was one of the highlights of the show.  Most fans of The Avengers consider the period of the series co-starring Macnee and Rigg to be the best.

John Steed and Emma Peel

I also fondly recall Macnee for his association with the original Battlestar Galactica series that was broadcast from 1978 to 1979.  He actually had three roles on that show: voicing the opening narration, voicing the Cylon Imperious Leader, and portraying the mysterious Count Iblis.

Iblis appeared in the two-part episode “War of the Gods.”  Iblis is a charismatic yet sinister figure who promises to lead the human survivors of the Cylon massacre to the long sought-after lost colony of Earth if they pledge their loyalty to him.  In a plotline influenced by both series creator Glen A. Larson’s Mormon faith and the then-popular book Chariots of the Gods, Iblis is eventually revealed to be a highly evolved extraterrestrial entity who fell from grace and was exiled by his people, becoming a force of temptation & corruption, i.e. a Satanic figure.  It is implied that more than a millennia in the past Iblis played a role in the downfall of the original reptilian Cylons, who were supplanted by their mechanical successors, hence their Imperious Leader having the same voice as the Count.

Patrick Macnee Count Iblis

Macnee played Count Iblis with a wonderful combination of charm and menace.  His performance as this enigmatic figure is a major reason why “War of the Gods” is considered one of the best entries in Battlestar Galactica’s uneven run.

Patrick Macnee was certainly a talented actor.  It was always wonderful to see him appear on television.  He will definitely be missed.

Comic book reviews: Battlestar Galactica Annual 2014

“There’s one thing, do you see, that’s terrifying in this world, and that is that every man has his reasons.” – Jean Renoir

When I was a kid in the early 1980s, one of my favorite television shows was Battlestar Galactica. Along with reruns of Star Trek and Doctor Who, Glen Larson’s saga of the last desperate survivors of humanity was a must see for my young self. Of course, re-watching the series a couple of decades later as an adult, I did come to realize that there was very little in the way of real character development over the course of the series. There was also some pretty dodgy plotting going on.

That seemed to be especially true of the show’s main human antagonist, Count Baltar. Although very memorably portrayed by the late, great John Colicos, from the standpoint of existing as a believable character, Baltar was quite lacking. He never seemed to really have any sufficient motivation for betraying humanity to the Cylons, other than the fact that he was evil with a capital “E.” Along those lines, he also appeared totally naïve in believing that the Cylons would hold up their end of their deal, spare his life, and install him as the ruler of his own world.

(This, of course, is one of the reasons why I really enjoyed Ronald D. Moore’s reimagining of Battlestar Galactica. As written, Dr. Gaius Baltar was an amazing character, a flawed, morally ambivalent individual who really grew over the course of the series. And he was so brilliantly played by James Callis.)

Battlestar Galactica Annual 2014 cover

Keeping this in mind, I was very much intrigued when I learned that the Battlestar Galactica Annual 2014, published by Dynamite Entertainment, would be an in-depth examination of the origins of Count Baltar. It also piqued my interest that the story was written by Robert Napton who also penned several enjoyable Battlestar Galactica miniseries published in the mid-1990s by Maximum Press (say what you will about Rob Liefeld, but he was probably the first person to generate new interest in the property in over a decade).

So, what makes Baltar tick? What leads a man to become the ultimate traitor, betraying the whole of humanity to a race of cold, ruthless machine beings? Not too surprisingly, he is a product of his environment & upbringing.

As revealed by Napton, we learn that Baltar was born on Cygnus, a harsh, lonely tylium mining asteroid. After his mother died, young Baltar was left to be raised by his father Sela, an angry, abusive, greedy alcoholic. Unfortunately, young Baltar inherited his father’s covetous nature and, dazzled by the wealth of the mine, attempted to make off with a piece of tylium. Quickly discovered, Baltar was brutally beaten by his father. The youth came to realize that Sela cared more for his tylium mine than his son.

Baltar’s destiny spiraled further into darkness when the Cylon Empire invaded Cygnus. Fearful of being dragged into a full-scale war, the human Colonies left the tylium miners to fend for themselves. Suffering under the brutal lash of Cylon occupation, Baltar’s existing contempt for and resentment against his father grew to encompass the whole of humanity, who he regarded as having turned its back on him.

Battlestar Galactica Annual 2014 pg 14

Thus Baltar set out on a lifelong course of collaboration and deception, of treachery and avarice, fueled by a burning desire for both self-preservation and power. Baltar can be regarded as a self-made man, climbing to great financial, social and political heights. And though these many accomplishments are built upon the bones of the innocents he used and discarded, from Baltar’s perspective his actions are perfectly justified and rational. As written by Napton, it makes perfect sense that this is an individual who ended up exactly as we see him at the beginning of the series’ debut episode.

And then Napton engages in a truly magnificent mind-frack (as the characters themselves might say). Inspired by the retconned ending of the series pilot, which famously undid Baltar’s apparent death earlier in the episode, Napton suggests a horrific revelation that leaves Baltar questioning both his sanity and his very existence. In the end, we might even be left feeling sorry for Baltar. And even if we cannot pity him, then at least we can understand him, and appreciate the tragedy of his existence, the squandered potential of his life.

The art on Battlestar Galactica Annual 2014 is by Kewber Baal. I am completely unfamiliar with him, but he does superb work on this story. Baal absolutely brings Baltar to life, not just rendering an amazing likeness of John Colicos, but imbuing the character with all the arrogance, contempt, desperation, and fear that the actor had brought to the screen in his performance.

Battlestar Galactica Annual 2014 pg 3

Via some very effective layouts & storytelling, Baal also renders the Cylons as genuinely menacing, frightening figures. These mechanical tyrants truly seem like they are capable of conquering the entire galaxy, grinding all resistance beneath their heel. As opposed to, y’know, a bunch of tin soldiers who get blown to bits by a group of kids riding around on freaking unicorns… talk about an appalling example of Villain Decay! But I digress.

In any case, this was quite a good read. I hope that Napton has the opportunity to write further Battlestar Galactica stories at Dynamite. Based on the Annual, as well as his past work, he has a really good grasp of the characters, as well as some interesting thoughts on what sort of directions they can be taken in the future.