Tinseltown Talks: Nehemiah Persoff retired from screen to canvas

Nehemiah Persoff as Barbra Streisand’s father in Yentl. Courtesy photo.
Nehemiah Persoff as Barbra Streisand’s father in Yentl. Courtesy photo.
Since retiring from acting over a decade ago, versatile character actor Nehemiah Persoff has become a successful artist painting from his seaside home in Cambria, Calif., (see nehemiahpersoffpaintings.com).

The Cambria Center for the Arts hosted a birthday celebration on August 4 for Persoff, who turned 95 a few days earlier. This included screening a selection of his films, and the artist even auctioned some of his works, donating the proceeds to the center.

But in 1989 Persoff experienced a TIA — transient ischemic attack — which is similar to a small stroke and often considered to be a “warning stroke.”

“The doctors told me to slow down,” said Persoff from his home. He heeded the medical advice and believes that painting contributed to his recovery.

“It certainly helped avoid another incident,” he said. “I would recommend to all seniors that they try painting. They will be surprised by their ability, and the peace and calm that concentrating on the painting provides.”

Persoff ’s screen career spanned six decades, beginning in the late 1940s, and he became one of Hollywood’s most prolific character actors.

Raised in Jerusalem, his natural talent for dialects was quickly exploited when Persoff moved to Hollywood after a decade of stage and early TV work in New York. Often cast in the role of ethnic villains, he crafted a career playing slick gangsters, ruthless outlaws, and menacing military leaders.

“I did play many villains, but also diplomats, doctors and scientists,” recalled Persoff. “So I don’t think I was typecast. I enjoyed playing any character that was well written.”

In his second film, On the Waterfront in 1954, Persoff appears on screen for just a few seconds as the tense cab driver in the famous ‘I could have been a contender’ scene with Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger. Director Elia Kazan offered him $75 for the role.

“There were Brando and Steiger in the back section of a sawed off car,” said Persoff. “I sat on a milk box with Brando and Steiger behind me. When it was time for my close-up, Kazan whispered in my ear to imagine that ‘the guy behind you killed your mother.’ When I saw the film I was surprised to see how effective the close-up turned out.”

He went on to work with other greats including Karloff, Cagney, and Bogart on his final film in 1956, The Harder They Fall.

“He was already very sick and his eyes teared a great deal,” recalled Persoff of Bogart. “But he had moments when he was very sharp. He wasn’t the sort of guy you wanted to tangle with. I heard him give one wise guy a tongue lashing that was devastating –— you didn’t get smart with Bogie!”

With over 400 film and TV roles to his credit, Persoff admits he has forgotten details about some. But he does recall an episode of Gunsmoke with James Arness in which the six-and-a-half-foot lawman refused to yield vertical ground to the five foot, seven inch Persoff.

Persoff as a guest star on Gilligan’s Island. Courtesy photo.
Persoff as a guest star on Gilligan’s Island. Courtesy photo.
“I was supposed to be a gunman who challenged Marshal Dillon,” he explained. “I suggested to the director that perhaps I might be more of a threat if I wore lifts in my shows to make me taller. So the wardrobe people gave me high heels to make me about six feet. When I walked on the set and the showdown came, I looked over at Arness and he was suddenly seven feet tall. He had heard I was getting shoes to make myself taller, so he got a pair too and was still a foot taller than me!”

Today, Persoff enjoys retirement and paints several hours a day while basking in the West Coast sunset, rather than the Hollywood spotlight. But he gives credit to his first career for helping his second.

“When I got a role, I set my sights on being able to get under the skin of the character,” he said. “At first it would seem like a formidable task, but somehow I always got the job done. It’s the same with painting. When you sit in front of a blank canvass, there is a feeling of ‘I can’t do it’ for many painters. But because of my acting experience, I always felt that I could do it, and I did.”

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 400 magazines and newspapers.