Nehemiah Persoff, a ubiquitous character actor whose raspy voice and talent for conveying an air of menace magnified his portraits of a bevy of sinister types, most notably half a dozen Prohibition-era mobsters, died Tuesday in San Luis Obispo, California. were 102.
The cause was heart failure, said his grandson, Joey Persoff.
For decades, Mr. Persoff was one of the most recognizable faces on television, if not by name; he was featured on hundreds of shows, starting in the late 1940s. He usually played a supporting role, sometimes friendly, sometimes malicious, but given his talent for dialect, often with an undefined foreign accent.
He appeared in such enduring series from the 50s, 60s, and 70s as “Gunsmoke,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Route 66,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Hawaii Five-O,” and “Columbo.” ‘, and he continued into the 1990s, with parts on ‘Law & Order’ and ‘Chicago Hope’.
Mr. Persoff, a Jerusalem native who immigrated to the United States at the age of 9, was in real life an amiable father of four who had been married to the same woman for seven decades and who became an accomplished painter after retirement.
His most prominent roles included three tenderly caring parents: a Jewish refugee who escaped the Nazis and hoped to reunite with his daughter in Havana in the 1976 film “Voyage of the Damned”; the father of an Orthodox Jewish girl in early 20th-century Poland, who pretends to be a boy so she can study in a yeshiva, in Barbra Streisand’s “Yentl” (1983); and the voice of the father of Fievel Mousekewitz, the Russian Jewish mouse who immigrates to the United States to escape marauding cats, in the 1986 animated film “An American Tail” and its sequel.
Still, he was most associated with the neat gangsters he portrayed in movies and on television. He was the underworld boss Johnny Torrio in the 1959 film “Al Capone”, starring Rod Steiger in the title role. In the TV series “The Untouchables” he played two different real-life mobsters: Jake Guzik, the financial mastermind of Capone’s illicit drinking gang, in a few episodes, and Waxey Gordon, New York’s king of illegal beer, in a 1960 episode. in which he gleefully pointed a Tommy pistol into the barrels of a competitor.
Perhaps his most memorable supporting role was his outrageous parody of a mobster, Little Bonaparte, in the classic Billy Wilder comedy “Some Like It Hot” (1959). Two of his lines from that movie are often quoted by movie buffs.
Addressing a crowd disguised as a convention for opera buffs, he says, “Last fiscal year, we made $100 and 12 million pre-tax… except we didn’t pay taxes!”
And after a hit man jumps out of a huge birthday cake and shoots machine guns at another mobster, played by George Raft, and his entourage, Mr. Persoff tells an investigating detective, “There was something in that cake that didn’t match ‘them.”
Persoff once said he loved working on “The Untouchables” because he could close the horns with Elliot Ness, the federal agent played with righteous hauteur by Robert Stack.
“Bob Stack was so nose in the air, he was so correct and superior, so aristocratic, that it brought out the rebel in me without any effort on my part,” he told Cinema Retro magazine. “It hit a vein of anger in me, anger that in my mind is such an important part of what makes a mobster.”
Nehemiah Persoff was born in Jerusalem on August 2, 1919, during the years that the area was passing from Ottoman rule to a British mandate. His father, Shmuel, a silversmith, jeweler and art teacher, decided his prospects in America would improve and emigrated on his own. After six years, he brought over his wife, Puah (Holman) Persoff, a homemaker, and his three sons and two daughters.
It was the onset of the Depression, and the family lived in a cold-water condominium in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, though they eventually moved to the Bronx.
Nehemiah went to the Hebrew Technical Institute to study the profession of electrician, and his first job was as a signal maintenance worker on the old IND subway line. It paid him $38 a week, more than his father made.
His introduction to acting happened by chance: he was asked to perform a walk-on in a play that was the pinnacle of the function of a Zionist organization. The experience planted an idea, and after completing three years in the US military, he retired from subway work and began studying acting.
Persoff was one of the first students at the Actors Studio, where his teachers were Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg, proponents of method acting. His fellow students included Julie Harris, Martin Balsam, Cloris Leachman, and Kim Hunter.
His first bit was in the 1948 film noir “Naked City”, but it was another bit that brought his face to widespread attention: he was the silent taxi driver in the memorable taxi scene in “On the Waterfront” (1954), in what Marlon Brando says to Rod Steiger: “I could have had class, I could have been a contender. I could have been someone, instead of a bum, that’s what I am.”
He was usually cast in small supporting parts, but he often turned them into gems of characterization. One was Leo, the corrupt accountant, in Humphrey Bogart’s last photo, “The Harder They Fall” (1956), who coolly tells an enraged Bogart that from the $1 million gate to a championship fight, the story’s out-performed boxer’s $49 .07 will receive.
In 1951, Mr. Persoff married Thia Persov, a distant relative who had been a nurse for the Palmach, a Zionist military group, during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. She died of cancer last year. In addition to his grandson, Mr. Persoff’s three sons, Jeffrey, Dan and Perry; a daughter, Dahlia; and four granddaughters. He lived in the town of Cambria on the central coast of California.
While acting in Hollywood, Mr. Persoff his hand at live theater. In 1959, he starred on Broadway as newspaper editor and essayist Harry Golden in a short-lived adaptation of Mr. Golden, ‘Only in America’. It was the last of his more than a dozen Broadway appearances.
In California, he starred as a cranky socialist in his 80s in the Herb Gardner comedy “I’m Not Rappaport” and as the milkman Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
For nearly two decades, he appeared as Tevye’s creator, Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, in a one-man show for which he adapted five of the writer’s fables. In 1975, he received the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for his supporting role in “The Dybbuk” at the Mark Taper Forum.
When high blood pressure and other health problems forced him to reduce his workload, Mr. Persoff studied in Los Angeles and created watercolors that have been exhibited in galleries in Northern California. He continued to paint until the last week of his life. In 2021, he published a memoir, “The Many of Faces of Nehemiah.”
In addition to dialects and accents, he had a telling philosophy about acting. “If I play a good boy, I will try to show that he has something bad in him,” he once said. “If I play a bad guy, I’ll give him some dignity and love.”
Alex Traub contributed reporting.