RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVES
Nehemiah Persoff: From Jerusalem to Hollywood – and Beyond
By Herb Shadrak
Born in Jerusalem in 1919, Nehemiah Persoff went on to
become one of the busiest character actors in Hollywood. His face is familiar
to millions of boomers across North America from his numerous guest appearances
on just about every TV series that aired from the 1950s through the 1990s.
Persoff’s name may have been unfamiliar to many of these TV viewers, but his
face was instantly recognizable. Filmspot.com describes Persoff as a
“short, dark and stocky-framed actor who specialized in playing ethnic-type
villains, although he frequently essayed sympathetic roles as well.” (Witness
his heartbreaking moments with Maria Schell in Voyage of the Damned.) Yet he excelled as gangland figures like
Johnny Torrio, mentor to Al Capone in
the 1959 biopic, or mobster Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik – a recurring role on The Untouchables.
Persoff’s childhood was poverty-stricken, but there was constant
singing, dancing and music in his home. He was a very creative and imaginative
youngster, who always visited the circus when it came to the Holy City. “There
was a large field in Jerusalem where the circus used to set up,” Persoff
recalls. “It was a very small one-ring circus, but I loved it. Outside the circus
was an Arab with a box on a stand with peepholes in it, and he had a small
monkey on a chain with a hat. This was enough to make me stand there for hours
watching. One day, the Arab let me look through the peepholes. There I saw a
funny man with a derby and cane. He had a funny walk. It was Charlie Chaplin!
Little did I know that 20 years later I would meet that man face-to-face!”
Persoff found himself drawn to the cinema at an early age.
“Two outdoor moviehouses were opened on Zion Square: one was called Eden. It
had a circle of bulbs that would light up one after the other. I used to walk
down there barefoot and watch the cinema from a post on the street. From that
height I could see the top of the screen for free. I think the other outdoor
moviehouse was called Aviv. For its grand opening they showed Ben Hur
with Ramon Novarro. There were pennants hung all over… I guess that was our
version of a Hollywood opening.
“I find that at age 88 my mind goes back to my early
childhood more and more. Jerusalem in the late twenties was a place like no
other. I cannot imagine a 10-year-old more attached to his birthplace than I
was. I was keenly aware of the love that people had for each other, the feeling
that we were all tied to the same cause. The pioneers came with nothing but
enthusiasm and a love for life and our native land. Their attitude was ‘to hell
with worldly goods, that's not what's important in our lives.’”
And yet Persoff’s father, a silversmith and painter, felt he had no career
prospects in Palestine. So the young Persoff emigrated with his family to the
United States in 1929, just in time for the Stock Market Crash and the Great
Depression. Persoff spent several years working as an electrician on the New
York subway system, gradually taking an interest in acting in the 1940's.
“When I started acting, I was working in the subway and
there was a rule that subway workers were not allowed to have any other job,”
Persoff remembers. “So on the program of the play, I used the name Nick Perry.
My reviews were great but no one knew it was me, so I got none of the glory.
After that I always used ‘Nehemiah Persoff’.”
After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Persoff started
seriously pursuing an acting career in the New York theatre. In 1947, Persoff’s
big break came along, one that would lead to steady work in films and
television for the next 52 years.
“My friend (actor) Lou Gilbert told me that if I wanted to
audition for the Actors Studio, he would arrange it. I jumped at the chance.
Elia Kazan was one of the busiest directors around, and to study with him and
be in his pool of actors was every actor's dream. I was in summer stock playing
the lead role in George Bernard Shaw's The Devil's Disciple. I knew that
Kazan was with the Group Theatre along with writer Clifford Odets. I thought of
doing something from an Odets play but then reasoned that perhaps a more
classic approach might work better for me, so I did a monologue from Shaw. Two
weeks later, I received an invitation to come to the first meeting of the
Actors Studio. I took my seat on a bench and slowly looked around. 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. I studied with Lee
Strasberg. He was brilliant and helped me find myself as an actor… I owe him
much. Among other scenes, I did a Noel Coward piece with Kim Stanley.”
After the Actors Studio, Persoff never looked back. His film credits include Kazan’s On the
Waterfront, The Harder They Fall (Humphrey
Bogart’s last film), Alfred Hitchcock’s The
Wrong Man, Never Steal Anything Small
(with James Cagney), René Clément’s This
Angry Age (shot in Thailand), Green
Mansions (with Audrey Hepburn and Anthony Perkins), The Hook (with
Kirk Douglas), A Global Affair (with
Bob Hope), Ray Danton’s frightfest Psychic
Killer, Barbra Streisand’s Yentl and
Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of
Persoff also guest starred on about 400 TV shows, including The Twilight
Zone (playing a Nazi U-Boat captain in the classic episode "Judgment
Night"!), Route 66, Ben Casey, Wagon
Train, Rawhide, Mr. Novak, Burke’s Law, Honey West, Dan August, The High
Chaparal, The Big Valley, The Legend of Jesse James, The Wild Wild West, Gilligan’s
Island, Hawaii Five-O, Tarzan, It Takes a Thief, Land of the Giants
and The Time Tunnel.
In the mid-1980s, Persoff began to pursue painting. Now retired from
acting, he devotes full time to this avocation he has always loved.
Cinema Retro spoke to
Persoff from his home in Cambria, California.
Cinema Retro: Billy Wilder gave you a nice moment as
gangster Little Bonaparte in Some Like It
Nehemiah Persoff: When we were filming my scene, the cast of
Porgy and Bess (which was shooting next door) came in to watch: Sammy
Davis, Sidney Poitier and others. So Wilder was “on”. He felt the need to entertain, so he told joke after joke
and soon the whole set was giggling. It was a good atmosphere for my scene…
Wilder left me pretty much alone, sometimes imitating my reading or asking me
to put a different emphasis on a phrase, but on the whole, he let me do my
CR: You played a haunted German U-Boat commander condemned
to a horrible afterlife in a 1959 episode of The Twilight Zone scripted
by Rod Serling. How did you get inside the mind of a Nazi?
NP: You know, when you are doing television there is so
little time to think, you just jump in and do it.
CR: You starred with Cara Williams in The Cure (1960), one of the more macabre episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, based on a
story by Psycho author Robert Bloch. The Cure is set in the jungle and
involves a “headshrinker.” Any recollections of working on this rather gruesome
episode of the classic anthology series hosted by the Master of Suspense?
NP: Cara Williams was a very attractive lady involved in
some kind of gossip scandal at the time. I mention this because in my memory of
the episode, she was cheating on me with Peter Mark Richman (in the play, of
course). As I remember, her beauty and the newspaper headlines helped me in my
jealousy and prompted my character to decide to send her to a psychiatrist.
However, I used the slang term “headshrinker.” We were out in the jungle
somewhere. My native servant was ordered to see to it that she gets to the headshrinker
and then back to me safely. My servant later returns with the small
shrunken head of my wife hanging by her hair. This was vintage Hitchcock!
CR: What kind of shape was Broderick Crawford in when you
worked with the Oscar-winning actor in an episode of the short-lived series King of Diamonds (1961)? Crawford was
perfectly cast as John King, the two-fisted, globe-trotting chief of security
for the world's diamond industry. You were cast as the ringleader of a criminal
NP: Brod Crawford – I remember very little of this episode except
hearing a conversation between the director and his assistant: "Get all
the shots you can before 11 am; after that, forget it." I'm not telling
any secrets, it was common knowledge that Broderick Crawford had a severe
The Harder They Fall with Humphrey Bogart and Rod Steiger
CR: You played a cop in a 1961 episode of Thriller titled The Fingers
of Fear.This is one of the early
straight crime episodes. The plot summary reads: “Although it appears
that a mentally handicapped man is responsible for the recent brutal slayings
of several young children, an incredulous police detective isn't ready to close
the case just yet.” Describe the atmosphere on the Thriller set. Did you ever meet host
I remember Fingers of Fear was shot at Fox with Robert Middleton, but that's
all I remember. I was in Peter Pan
on Broadway with Boris Karloff playing Captain Hook. We had a very good
relationship. I often stopped at his dressing room on my way to mine, and he
told me all about his young days in Hollywood driving a truck. He had countless
stories which I enjoyed. One day I overslept and came in about 15 minutes
before curtain time. Actors are to report backstage no later than half-an-hour
before curtain. In panic, they were preparing my understudy. The next day, I
stopped at Mr. Karloff's dressing room, and he gave me a serious lecture on the
actor's responsibility to the rest of the cast and to the production. I
valued that and since then I've always come in at least 45 minutes before
At that time, in 1950, AFTRA (American Federation of
Television and Radio Artists) was being organized. A notice was sent out to
actors to meet at the Malin Studios at 11:30 pm (after the shows). Our curtain
came down early; it was either a short play or we may have raised the curtain
earlier. Anyway, I got there early. I thought I was the first to be there, but
as I entered the hall, I saw one person sitting there. I said, "Boris, I'm
surprised to see you here," to which he said, "You needn't be surprised.
I know of the miserable conditions in the movie industry before the Screen
Actors Guild was organized, and I feel strongly that television actors better
get organized to avoid the misery screen actors had to endure years ago."
CR: For many, your signature role is as mobster Jake Guzik on The Untouchables. What is it about that
role that makes it so special? You guest starred as Guzik three times, and took
different supporting roles in three other episodes of The Untouchables.Executive
producers Jerry Thorpe and Allan A. Armer must have really liked your work… to
use you so often!
NP: Jake Guzik was the first character I played on The Untouchables. I loved doing that
show mostly because Robert Stack was so great in his role. To me he was
invaluable. Bob Stack (in the role of federal Prohibition agent Elliot Ness)
was so nose-in-the-air stuck-up, he was so correct and superior, so
aristocratic, that without any effort on my part, it brought out the rebel in
me (wherever it lay dormant). It struck a vein of anger in me… anger which, in
my mind, is such an important part of what makes a gangster (one who rebels
against the rules and wants things his way). I did five or six episodes and I
certainly attribute much of my success to Bob. In person we were friends, my
wife and I have been to dinner in his beautiful home in Bel-Air. Also
Bob's team was very helpful – Nick Georgiade, Paul Picerni, Abel Fernández.
One day while shooting outdoors in Culver City, at a
location used often by The Untouchables,
the minute the director called "action," a man across the
street started his lawnmower, drowning out the actors and making it
impossible to record. Apparently the man
had done this before and stopped his lawnmower for a price. This time he
expected to be paid off again; however, the production manager was not around
and we were all stuck there waiting. The cop assigned to the shoot said he
could do nothing because the man had a perfect right to run his mower. In
the scene we were about to shoot, I had a machine gun in my hands. An idea
suddenly came to me. I whistled to the man and motioned him to cross the
street. (I hid the machine gun behind me.) He thought this was the payoff, so
he came. When he got to me I casually held my machine gun at my side, and in my
best gangster demeanor asked "Can you do me a personal favor?"
"Sure." "Could you shut down that mower so my friends here can
do their work?" He hesitated and I added, "I wouldn't like to riddle
the gas tank with holes." The man said, "Sure, sure, no
problem". We finished filming. When I got to my dressing room, there was a
bottle of Smirnoff on my table – no name, no nothing.
Al Capone with Rod Steiger
CR: You were also a frequent guest star on one of the best police dramas ever
made – Naked City. You must have also
impressed the writer-producer team of Stirling Silliphant and Herbert
Leonard, as they had you on the show six times.
NP: I enjoyed working on Naked
City. First of all the scripts were great, and shooting on location in New York
was great fun. Also the cast – Paul Burke, Nancy Malone and Harry Bellaver – were
very helpful. Horace McMahon was a loner and seldom socialized.
I liked walking around the East Side during my lunch hour.
One day on Second Avenue, I saw a flower shop with a big sign in front – Fred
Spitz Flowers. My stand-in in Hollywood was Fred Spitz, a quiet unassuming
man. I forgot that I had a week's growth of beard and dressed like a
homeless person. I wanted to get their business card, so I could have a joke
with Freddie when I got back to Hollywood. I walked into the fancy shop and
asked the proprietor if I may have a couple of his business cards. The man came
out from behind the counter, took me by the arm and said, "Get outta here,
you bum, before I call the cops!" When I got back home and told
Freddie about this, he said, "oh sure." I know he didn't believe me.
CR: In Deadly Creature Below! (a
1966 episode of Voyage to the Bottom of
the Sea), you worked with Richard Basehart, one of the finest actors
America ever produced.Discuss your
participation in this episode. Did the talented Basehart ever show any
indication that he was disenchanted with being stuck in a Monster of the
NP: I'm sorry but I have no memory at all of that episode. I
remember that Richard Basehart was in it, but I don't remember meeting him. We
probably had no scenes together. I imagine it was hard for him to be doing
something far below his talent and ability.
CR: By the mid-sixties, the spy craze was in full swing and you were guest
starring on espionage series like The Man
from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy and Mission Impossible.
NP: On The Man from
U.N.C.L.E., I think I was an Egyptian cryptologist, but the rest is
vague. I did work in a film with Robert Vaughn, The Big Show (1961), in Munich, Germany. One weekend we went to Salzburg, Austria, and
on the way, we saw a sign directing tourists to Hitler's hideout in the
mountains. We took the winding road up the mountain. Apparently it was the
wrong road because it slowly began to narrow so only one car can pass and there
was no way to turn the car around. Soon the road was even too narrow for one
car. We were afraid the wheels would slip off the side of the dirt road. This
was scary because by this time we were very high up on the mountain. The view
was beautiful but we were too scared to enjoy it. Bob was driving; he finally
stopped the car. I opened my door but there was no place for me to walk. We
took a big chance and backed up just a few feet, I got out and directed Bob in
backing up; it was tricky because it was a winding road – one mistake and car
and driver would fall several thousand feet. It took us a couple of
hours to get to flat ground. When we got back to the hotel, we took a few drinks
and began to laugh without a stop; no one knew why we were
laughing and we were too embarrassed to tell.
CR: You were one of the busiest actors in Hollywood and New York in the 60s
and 70s. In a New Yorker short story
by John O’Hara, two unemployed actors sitting in a bar complain that you’re
getting every second acting job! James Wolcott writes in his December 2007 blog
for Vanity Fair: “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.” Anything to say by way of rebuttal?
NP: Mission Impossible
was fun to do. It was one of those shows that depended on tricks and gimmicks;
it was really more of a cartoon and the acting was at times broad, to suit the
contents of the episode. So when a TV critic writes about me in a show I
did almost 45 years ago, I am deeply flattered. Fortunately, I've had very few
bad reviews and at the time a bad review might have hurt me, because this was
my profession. A bad write-up by a respected critic might have made me
undesirable as an actor, but I don't make my living as an actor now, so I'm
just happy to be remembered after so many years.
However, since the subject was raised, and the
critic disregarded the nature of the material, there is another
matter. When I was growing up, there was a brilliant actor – Paul Muni. He
had a powerful, captivating personality. He lost himself in every role he
took. He was like Lon Chaney… completely different in each role. The
closest thing to him today is Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote). Well, as brilliant as Paul Muni was, his work today is viewed
as somewhat dated, because acting styles change with the years. The only other
thing I have to say on the matter is that writers – like actors – have to make
a living and they need something to write about to keep their job.
CR: In 1967, you co-starred in a comedy pilot for a proposed
ABC series called Manley and the Mob.
The pilot featured Paul Lynde as a slow-witted private detective. Was yours to
have been a recurring role? Was Paul Lynde an easy guy to work with?
NP: Yes, I was to be a regular on that show as Paul Lynde’s
boss. Paul Lynde was haunted by the image of the actor (Don Adams) who
spoke though the phone in his shoe in Get
Smart. Since our storyline was similar, every word Paul said sounded to
him as if he was imitating Adams. Every joke sounded to him like something from
Get Smart. I guess it was lucky the
show was not picked up. Did I get along with Paul? He was very much closed in
within himself. I don't think anybody knew him.
CR: In 1968, you
co-starred as an eccentric professor in producer George Pal’s penultimate film The Power, with an amazing cast headed
by George Hamilton, Suzanne Pleshette and Michael Rennie. This film was barely
noticed when it came out but seems to have developed a strong cult following
over the past 40 years. Any comments on your participation in this intriguing
science-fiction suspense thriller?
NP: The Power – It
was fun working with so many old friends. I enjoyed meeting President Lyndon Johnson's
daughter (Lynda Bird), who was then seeing George Hamilton. Otherwise, I have
no special memory of that film.
CR: You then ventured to Italy to make the little-seen but
highly regarded The Day of the Owl, a
1968 drama about efforts to break Mafia control over a northern Sicilian town.
How did you enjoy playing the associate of Mafia boss Lee J. Cobb in this
NP: I really enjoyed working on location in a small town in
the hills of Sicily. We shot much of the film in the town square or in
apartments in the area. We met and made friends with many of the locals and
kept in touch for many years.
Claudia Cardinale was a very beautiful woman and it
was easy to work with her.
Lee Cobb was an old friend. One day we filmed a scene where
we made a pact and had to seal it with a kiss. During rehearsals, we just
marked it. When it came time to shoot the scene, Lee said to the director, "Isn't
there some other way to make the point? You really want us to kiss each other
on the lips?" The director said, "Yes… what's so hard?" and
approached Lee as if to kiss him. Lee said, "No, no, try it on Nick… not
on me." I said, "No, no, not on me, try it on the makeup man."
The makeup man gave in gracefully and he and the director both enjoyed a long
kiss. The director said "Well, okay, you don't have to do it like
that but just a quick one. It's nothing… NOTHING!” Well, Lee and I agreed that
it won't be that long. We did the scene and when the director called "cut", Lee ran
to the side of the porch as if to barf, but we both lived to tell about it.
Every break Lee had from filming, he went off to Milan where
he bought a very special expensive car. That's all he could talk about – his
new Maserati. When we returned to L.A., Lee finally got delivery of his beauty.
He drove to Malibu to show it off to his friends and on the way back on
Wilshire Boulevard, a truck ran into his cherished car. Heartbreak!
During the filming of Day
of the Owl, I lived in a small fishing village called Alcamo Marina. There
I met a police officer who was in charge of catching smugglers from the sea. We
became good friends; he would take me to the market and ask me what I wanted –
fruit, watermelon, peaches, apricots. He would fill up bags with fruit then
slap his wallet pocket and ask "quanto costa?" and the poor peddlar
would say, "Ah capitano — niente, niente." This policeman's name was
Roma. One day he said, “I have a beautiful boat, you want to go fishing?”
We went to the harbor and then under a large canvas he showed me his beautiful
boat, and repeated, "You want fishing?" I said "yes." With
that he covered his boat. We walked to the nearest boat and he asked the man if
he would take us fishing. The man said, "Ah capitano, certamente." We
caught some fish and Roma slapped his wallet pocket – "quanto costa?" The
man bowed and smiled, "Ah niente, niente, capitano." This was
what my friend Roma got for looking the other way when a smuggler ran his boat
to shore. He was crooked as they come, but he had charm and he was fun to be
With Kirk Douglas in The Hook
CR: In the late
sixties, you came to Canada to play vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing in an
obscure production of Dracula, which
sat in the vaults for years and was only broadcast in 1973. This version of Dracula starred the now forgotten actor
Norman Welsh as the undead count. Very little is known about this version of
the Bram Stoker tale. Can you fill us in on the details?
NP: There is not much I remember about that show except that
one of the leading roles was played by a young actress… Miss Blair Brown – an
actress who enjoyed considerable success later in her acting career. This
was in the sixties when ladies were declaring their independence and burning
their bras. Well, Miss Brown burned her bra. She had a scene where
she was hysterical and had to be forcefully restrained. There were three young
men whose task it was to grab her and calm her down, so that I (as Professor Van
Helsing) could hypnotize her. In the first rehearsal, they managed to grab her
and realized that she was wearing nothing under her shear dress. The following
rehearsals saw a mad rush by each of these young men to get there first.
Unfortunately for these young men, the shot was gotten in one take.
CR: In 1974, you co-starred with lovely Barbara Eden in The Stranger Within, one of the best
made-for-TV horror films of that era, scripted by Richard Matheson. You were
cast as the bewildered doctor of a woman who begins to suspect that her baby
might be a creature from outer space. Discuss your involvement in this classic
ABC-TV movie-of-the week.
NP: The Stranger
Within – I'm sorry but I have no memory of that film. I just want to call
your attention to the fact that in that period I often did two shows at a
time. In other words, I was filming one and working on my next script at the
same time. So I was just plowing through without being much aware of what else
was happening on set. My wife and I were friends with Barbara and Mike Ansara.
Barbara is a sweet unassuming lady. Mike is a fine painter.
CR: You worked
steadily (almost non-stop, it seems) for five decades. Are there any
performances that you are especially proud of – perhaps your role in Voyage of the Damned as a
poverty-stricken European Jew trying to flee Hitler and reunite with his
daughter – a prostitute in Havana.
NP: Voyage of the Damned
was filmed in Barcelona, which is a great place to visit. We (the cast) had
much time on our hands. There was much touring and going to colorful
restaurants, and backgammon tournaments.
On my first day of work we filmed indoors, all of us
refugees getting our passports stamped. By the time we finished that scene and
walked out the door, it was really a shock to see the dock area. While we were
inside, the stage crew strung up Nazi banners, and all the SS men extras were
stationed at the pier. It was a shock and a surprise to us because we saw the
pier when we came in in the morning and we were not expecting to see what
looked like the real thing. What made it even more disturbing was that I was
standing next to an actor who was a survivor of Auschwitz.
I watched him grow pale as he stopped and refused to go any further. There
was much footage of that actor, but when the film was cut he was only
in one brief moment. (When Luther Adler is buried at sea, we see this actor
standing there in deep mourning.)
In this film, more than in any other film I've done, I am so
aware of how much good footage was cut in the final version. For instance, in
the scene where the girl sings, "vien vien nor doo alien," the
director, Stuart Rosenberg, filmed all of us individually reacting to this
moving song about Vienna. However, in the finished version, these reaction
shots could not be used because there is a story to tell and we can't get
bogged down in showing everyone's reaction no matter how interesting or moving.
That's show biz.
Voyage of the Damned with Maria Schell
CR: What made you
decide to retire from acting and take up painting full-time?
NP: I did not retire to take up painting. I was still
working when I moved to the central coast of California. I ran into a
group of plein air painters, and
picked up what I did in my youth and neglected during my busy
acting career. I've been painting seriously for 18 years now, and my need
to get up early to catch the morning light really motivates my life. In a year
and six months, I will be 90 and the George Krevsky Gallery on Geary Street in
San Francisco, as well as the Arthur Van Ryn Gallery in Cambria, are planning
exhibits of my paintings, so I'm busy busy busy preparing.
CR: Do you explore any specific themes in your work?
NP: Yes, I take some time to think and make decisions on how
best to paint the subject I choose. Painting is a source of great satisfaction
to me. I paint most every day. You might say it's my main occupation now. I
like to think that my paintings have the honesty that my acting did. My father
taught jewelry (filigree) at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in
Jerusalem, and now another Persov – Elad – teaches at Bezalel. So art runs in
(Nehemiah Persoff recalls filming The Comancheros with John Wayne in a future issue of Cinema Retro)
Portrait of the artist as a content man: Persoff enjoying his second career as a noted painter