Continuing a creative life

By James Rosin

Nehemiah Persoff has enjoyed a lengthy career as an esteemed character actor on stage, in feature films and on network television. Born in Jerusalem, Palestine (later Israel), Persoff emigrated to the U.S. with his family at age ten. As a young man he worked as an electrician doing signal maintenance for the New York Transit System. He later trained at the Actor’s Studio, first with Elia Kazan and later with Lee Strasberg. He made his Broadway debut in Galileo opposite Charles Laughton in the late 1940s. Throughout the 1950s, Persoff performed on Broadway, handled supporting roles in features films, and acted in live television. In 1959, Persoff joined the mass exodus of New York actors who moved to California to work in filmed television. He continued to act in movies and also appeared frequently in episodic TV, miniseries and movies for television.

He retired from acting in the late 1990s to concentrate on painting. When I first contacted Mr. Persoff about doing an interview, he was at first hesitant to agree. He was putting the finishing touches on a painting in his outdoor studio overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Not quite satisfied with his coloring of the sky, he sought to resolve the problem when a winged visitor arrived.

“My friend, a wild blue-scrub bird, has come for his usual visit in the late afternoon,” Mr. Persoff told me, “and he’s perched on my canvas facing me. That’s a good sign, because when he doesn’t like the painting, he turns his back on me, and drops his critique on the canvas or close to it.”

When we spoke again, I wondered why he was initially hesitant, and asked if he looked back unfavorably on his thespian years

Nehemiah Persoff: On the contrary. That was a great time. Those were years of great creativity. I had some wonderful experiences on stage, in films and on TV. I traveled all over the world and socialized with bright, attractive people. But did I want to revisit the uncertainty of the profession; the competition, tension, and the disappointment of being turned down for a role, both in my early years and during my good years?

JR: Having been an actor, I know not getting a role can be very upsetting.

NP: It can be a devastating experience. When you are turned down as an actor, it’s not only your talent that’s in question, but your entire being: your looks, face, hair, the way you speak, your personality, ethnicity, everything about you. My most recent experience (many years ago now, but it still bothers me) occurred when I was turned down for the title role for a film about Joseph Stalin. I had played Stalin in a television show with practically no make-up, just a moustache. I was a natural for the role and was very well received. The film’s producer chose a big-name star [for the Stalin role in his production]. One of our best actors. He was made up with layers of latex. He was good—not great, but good. I feel I would have been more authentic.

JR: During the 1950s, while you acted on Broadway, you also worked in live television. I’m told that was a very challenging medium.

NP: In the early days of television when shows were done live [televised at the moment they were being acted], actors were practically undone by the tension of performing an hour play after eight days of rehearsal and two days of technical rehearsal for the cameras. There was no room for mistakes, and surprisingly few were made. I’m sure many of you remember Maurice Evans in the televised Hamlet in the “To Be Or Not To Be” speech when a stage hand was seen crossing carefully on tip-toe behind him. I remember a much more serious and painful event in live TV. I played the man who killed Leon Trotsky on television. Trotsky was played by a very well known actor in the Yiddish stage on Second Avenue. The man was a legend, written about in many books as one of the great actors of our time. After he was murdered (as Trotsky), his wife (played by an actress from the Yiddish stage) discovered his body, cradled him in her arms, and went up in her lines. The dead Trotsky being an experienced stage actor (but never on television) did what any real pro would do on stage. He whispered the lines to the actress, she picked up on it, and the show proceeded uninterrupted. After a few days as was the custom, the cast was invited to see the tape of the show. I happened to be sitting next to “Trotsky.” When the whispered moment came, it was obviously to all that the dead man was whispering his wife’s lines. The actor was in shock. He said in a loud voice, “Oh no. Oh my God. Oh, no, no, no. Stupid! Stupid! How could you do that? You should not be allowed to do television. Idiot!” The man could not be consoled. He apologized and walked out of the screening. A couple of years later we were both cast in Golden Boy at Philadelphia’s Playhouse in the Park. When this actor saw me, he grew pale, took me by the arm and said, “Please . . .” I cut him off and said, “I don’t know what you are talking about. It never happened.” He hugged me and said, “Thank you, thank you.” I remember the pain he suffered and that of other actors when a mishap occurred.

JR: I remember watching you on two of the finest filmed TV series ever made: Naked City and Route 66. What do you feel was so special about them?

NP: The writers and producers on those shows were devoted to an honesty and truthfulness which was very easy to act. Also, both of those series were filmed on location which gave the actors and the audience a heightened sense of reality.

JR: I recall the Route 66 episode Incident on a Bridge. It was a very interesting beauty-and-the-beast tale told in flashbacks. You played a neanderthal-looking man with bulging teeth who in reality was a sensitive compassionate human being. What do you remember about that character?

NP: When we were filming the show in the Russian Hill section of Cleveland, there was a newspaperman from the Soviet Union covering the shoot. He asked to interview me, and I was uncomfortable speaking to him with the false teeth I was wearing for the role. Yet I was also uncomfortable taking them out in his presence. So I stayed in character. The newspaperman became even more uncomfortable than me, thinking he was interviewing the actual character that Stirling (Silliphant) wrote in his script.

JR: I also remember a Naked City episode with both you and Akim Tamiroff which had a touch of irony. Both of you played the role of Pablo in For Whom the Bell Tolls. A memorable scene in the movie had Gary Cooper trying to antagonize Tamiroff who continuously replied, “I don’t provoke.”

NP: That’s right. In 1958, Playhouse 90 produced For Whom the Bell Tolls on television and I played the role of Pablo. Akim Tamiroff had played the part in the 1943 film. From what I heard, Tamiroff wanted to reprise his role in the TV version and was resentful he wasn’t cast. When we were both cast in a Naked City episode [And If Any Are Frozen, Warm Them]. I was sure he would try to trip me up sometime during the course of filming. He never mentioned it . . . until the final day. We were on the streets of New York while they set up a shot, and noticed a man standing nearby, staring at both of us. He would stare at Tamiroff, then at me, until Tamiroff got annoyed and said, “What are you staring at? What do you want?” The man looked back at him and slowly said, “I don’t provoke,” to which a more subdued Tamiroff replied, “Oh . . . the movie or the TV show?”

JR: Many fans associate you with your hundreds of guest appearances on network television. Yet you also appeared in a number of classic films. In fact, in one of your first movie roles, you played the cab driver in the memorable Brando-Steiger taxi scene in On the Waterfront. What do you remember about it?

NP: When I entered the stage where the cab scene for On the Waterfront was filmed, I was intrigued by the way Kazan simulated a taxi cab going through traffic. The taxi was cut in half so the camera could film Marlon and Rod. The back window had a Venetian blind so we could not see the studio walls, and a couple of stage hands on either side of the “cab” were waving gobos [black screens] in front of the lights to simulate changing lights in traffic. I sat on a wooden milk crate in front of the back seat of the cab. There was a steering wheel in front of me. When I saw the film, I was surprised to see myself driving the cab in the streets of Hoboken!

JR: How do you differentiate between performing on stage and acting before the camera?

NP: The difference between film and stage acting is clearly a matter of reaching the audience. On stage the actor has to project vocally so he can be heard in the last seats of the balcony. This alone makes the acting theatrical, and unnatural. Also, facial expression carries possibly to the first fifteen rows, so the actor must find business [things to do] to communicate what he is thinking. For instance, if he is angry, he may make a fist, or bang the stable, stamp his foot, or pick up a stick or a knife, etc., etc. These are things that may be done on film, but—and this is a big but—the telling moments on film, especially on TV, are in the close-ups where the camera does not see what the rest of the body is doing. So, the film actor must rely on his face, on his eyes mainly, (on his thoughts) to communicate with the audience. Also, obviously the actor does not need to project as he does on stage. He can speak and act more naturally.

JR: I recall Richard Brooks, the movie director, once said he was continually amazed at how revealing the camera can be—sometimes things we miss ordinarily.

NP: That’s true. I was doing a scene with Bogart in The Harder They Fall. While we were talking, the new prize fighter we manage is seen walking down the hall. The boxer is so tall that his head hits the chandelier—this is the first time Bogart sees this fighter. After the scene—I was a brash young actor from New York—I told the director that an important moment was missed when Bogart saw this giant for the first time. He did not register any surprise, or anything different for that matter. The director said that Bogart did register surprise. I said, “No, he didn’t. I was standing right next to him and I say he did not.” The director then invited me to see the rushes of the scene. When I saw the scene on the big screen, I saw Bogart squint his eyes ever so little, and that registered all that was needed. That was the first and last time I had to be told that economy is a most important thing to consider when facing the camera.

JR: Was there a moment when you felt you had arrived as an actor with a statement to make?

NP: I felt I arrived the very first time I stepped on stage. When I was on stage I felt at home; as if I belonged there. I always felt I could match or even better any actor I worked with. Whether it was Steiger, Bogart, Cagney, Greer Garson, or whoever.

I always felt that when acting, I had a responsibility to reflect human behavior truthfully. My purpose was always to show the character in all its dimensions. We are not all good or all bad. Al Capone fed and clothed more than sixty families, and I don’t need to tell you that some of our most prominent citizens engaged in behavior unbecoming any decent human being.

JR: I saw you perform your one-man show of Sholem Aleichem which won an LA Theater Critics Award. So I thought you were a very appropriate choice for the role of Rebbe Mendel (Barbra Streisand’s Papa) in the film Yentl. I was surprised when you told me you had some initial difficulty connecting to the role.

NP: The role in Yentl was a short one. It’s hard to build a rounded character with true relationships to other actors when the role is so episodic. When I traveled to London for the filming, I was unhappy because I could not find myself in the role. One day before filming, Barbra invited me for tea in her house in London. She was casually dressed, barefoot, little or no make-up. She was weary after a day’s work, acting and directing, and her back was hurting. While sipping tea she started talking about her career, the difficulties she had at first. She told me about losing her father at the tender age of two, of her early years in Brooklyn, and so on. She said “Let’s read.” As we read, I looked at her and I thought: “What courage you have to take on this film. To write, direct, act, and sing.” I read, “Yentl, I’m so proud of you.” (a girl wanting to be a scholar), and at that moment the emotion welled up in me. We filmed that scene the next day. Later we flew for more filming in Czechoslovakia. On the plane flying back to California, I reviewed the scenes in my head, and it suddenly came to me that the random conversation we had over tea, was not so random. The conversation was very well planned—she was directing me without my even knowing it, which is the best kind of direction an actor can wish for. I told this story at Barbra’s AFI awards. I felt the story needed a lift so I added: “Barbra, for almost twenty years, you’ve been like a real daughter to me—you don’t call; you don’t write.”

JR: I remember seeing that on television. It was a nice tribute when Barbra Streisand explained why she cast you as her father. And I remember the camera cutting to the warm and amused faces of Clint Eastwood, Sydney Pollack and Streisand herself as you told that story.

NP: 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.

We’re also very fortunate. Although Nehemiah Persoff is retired, we can still see many of his performances on video. We can also view a full listing of his credits and some of his paintings by going to nehemiahpersoffpaintings.com

Filmography

On the Waterfront (1954), The Wrong Man (1956), The Harder They Fall (1956), The Wild Party (1956), Men in War (1957), Street of Sinners (1957), This Angry Age (1958), The Badlanders (1958), Day of the Outlaw (1959), Some Like It Hot (1959), Al Capone (1959), Green Mansions (1959), Never Steal Anything Small (1959)

The Big Show (1960), The Comancheros (1961), The Hook (1963), Fate Is the Hunter (1964), The Global Affair (1964), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), The Power (1966), Too Many Thieves (1966), Panic in the Streets (1968), Mafia (1968), The Money Jungle (1968), The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1969)

The People Next Door (1970), Mrs. Pollifax - Spy (1971), Red Sky at Morning (1971), Lapin 360 (1972), Psychic Killer (1975), Voyage of the Damned (1976), Deadly Harvest (1977)

St. Helens (1981), Yentl (1983), Twins (1988), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

4 Faces (1999)

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