Character actor Nehemiah Persoff looks back at 102 years

Some of Nehemiah Persoff's roles
Nehemiah Persoff has hundreds of screen credits from classic Hollywood films and TV shows. Clockwise from top left: “Some Like It Hot,” “On The Waterfront,” “Red Sky at Morning,” “Yentl” and “Playhouse 90.” (Nehemiah Persoff/Photo illustration by Grace Yagel, via JTA)

By Tom Tugend

When actor, painter and writer Nehemiah Persoff, at times dubbed “the last survivor of Hollywood’s golden age,” was a 3 year old growing up in Jerusalem, he fell in love with his kindergarten teacher. Desperate to attract her attention, little Nehemiah got on his trike and rode it in smaller and smaller circles until the trike and its rider fell over.

“I pretended that I was hurt,” Persoff writes in his autobiography, “The Many Faces of Nehemiah.” “So the teacher ran over and hugged me. I was in heaven.”

Nearly a century later, the now-102-year old reminisced, “I learned then that I could make people believe my exaggerations and make fiction accepted as truth. I guess I was born an actor.”

Now, with some 200 stage, film and television credits on his resume, including roles in screen classics “Some Like It Hot,” “Yentl,” “The Wrong Man” and “An American Tail,” Persoff sits in an easy chair propping up his legs at his home in the California coastal community of Cambria, recalling the high and low points of a very full life.

Listening to him, via Zoom, was a reporter, himself 96 years old. Adding up the ages of questioner and responder yielded a total of almost two centuries, matching the longevity of some of their Biblical ancestors.

When Persoff was 10, his family left Israel and moved to New York, all but shattering the boy. He left behind the only friends he knew. Long “bombarded” with Zionism, he felt that his true  mission in life was to help create a Jewish state.

Arriving in New York in 1929, at the start of the Great Depression, Persoff and his parents soon discovered that, contrary to mythology, the streets of America were not paved with gold.

His initial job at a motor repair shop earned him just a  handful of dollars, but he upped this to a princely $35 a week when he landed a job as a New York subway electrician.

Persoff spent most of his fortune visiting the neighborhood movie theater. The rest of his family was not so fortunate,  so when he came home for dinner, he acted out all the parts  for an audience consisting of his parents and siblings.

Having caught the acting bug, Persoff — through the intervention of a girlfriend — landed a scholarship at the New Theatre acting school. His  first role was as a walk-on as Karl Marx,  for a show attended mainly by Communist party members.

After an extensive make-up job, but not a single line of dialogue, Persoff walked  on the stage. The audience, recognizing  the actor as Marx, burst into a 10-minute long ovation.

His acting career was beginning to  take off when, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December  1941, he was drafted by the U.S. Army for a three-year engagement. However, he lucked out and was assigned to form an acting company to entertain soldiers at training camps and overseas.

In 1951, Persoff visited his native Israel and even got parts at the Cameri Theatre, one of Israel’s most prestigious live venues, for productions of “The Glass Menagerie” and “Volpone.”

While there, he also met his future wife, Thia, whom he credited with “keeping my feet on the ground.” She died earlier  this spring.

But the visit to Israel reopened an old scar for Persoff — his failure to return to his home country to fight in the 1948-49 War of Independence.

“All my life I promised myself that if Israel were to fight for its existence, I would be fighting alongside my brothers and sisters,” he said. “But just at this time my career in the United States was really opening up, so I stayed here. I am still unhappy that I didn’t go.”

Persoff defines himself as a “character actor,” meaning that his role was generally to act as a foil to the (usually heroic) lead actor.

“If John Wayne, as the hero, rides up and calmly pumps the other guy full of lead, the victim must be a really bad guy so that the audience will stay on the hero’s side — that means I’ve played a lot of gangsters in my life,” observed Persoff.

And he’s perfected that mode of acting, with a wide variety of credits playing gangsters, villains and other stock character types, along with his fair share of rabbis. Persoff has popped  up with guest roles in countless iconic TV shows like “The  Twilight Zone,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Mission: Impossible” and “Gunsmoke.” He has also voiced Papa Mouskewitz, the patriarch of beloved cartoon mouse immigrant Fievel, across  the “American Tail” franchise, spanning four films and multiple video games.

Almost 30 years ago, Persoff quit acting after suffering a minor stroke and found it almost impossible to stand on his feet for any length of time. His final screen role to date was in HBO’s 2003 adaptation of “Angels in America,” playing a rabbi.

The positive result of that life change was that Persoff lost his heavy load of anxieties and tensions. Among the latter, he cited the time he played the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and started acting like him at home, ordering his family around and barking at the children.

“It took me quite some time to realize that acting was not living — it’s an art,” he noted.

Persoff’s final push to change his lifestyle was when he spent a great amount of time, effort and money to put on a one-man show in San Diego. He rented a 200-seat theater, but on opening night only 11 seats were filled.

After moving to Cambria, he became acquainted with a group of painters and has shown considerable talent — and has found peace — in his new art form. At this point, he has completed some 250 watercolors, which have drawn considerable praise  and buyers.

Persoff is not religious but, he declared, “I am part of the whole Jewish experience… It’s great to be a Jew.”

His unparalleled acting career has taught him a thing or two about life, which he elaborates on in his book.

“I’m not running down the joys I had in my life,” he writes. “Yet there is a price to pay for everything… My understanding at this point is that the actor should not have  to live the part… Acting is a distillation of certain moments  in life, but it’s not life itself.”

But “looking back, I am so happy that I became an  actor. Yes, there were hardships, but there were also moments  that were nothing short of heavenly… Thanks for reading my  book. I do hope it was worth the effort.”

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