“Papa Can You Hear Me” …Precious Moments With Nehemiah Persoff

By Steve Vertlieb: Here is, perhaps, the most exciting moment of my recent pilgrimage to Los Angeles and Hollywood, California. I’ve been a huge fan of character actor Nehemiah Persoff for some sixty years. We’d begun a degree of correspondence in May 2019. I was watching an episode of tv’s The Untouchables during a televised weekend retrospective in the late Spring and there, of course, was the great Nehemiah appearing as a guest in three separate episodes of the classic television series.

I began to wonder whatever became of this marvelous actor and so, before retiring for the evening, I started to research Mr. Persoff’s whereabouts on my computer. As luck would have it, I found him and wrote him a rather hasty letter of personal and lifelong admiration. To my shock and utter astonishment, he responded within five minutes.

I told him that I was coming West in a few months, and wondered if there was even the most remote possibility that I could personally pay my respects. Born in Palestine (now Jerusalem) on August 2nd, 1919, this gifted actor was about to turn one hundred years old.

Mr. Persoff generously consented to a visit and so, on Wednesday, August 28, 2019, my brother Erwin and I commenced our long drive to his home. We spent two hours at the feet of this remarkable human being, and shared a virtual Master Class on the art and history of screen acting. He spoke reverently of working with Marlon Brando at The Actor’s Studio, and in On The Waterfront, as well as studying with Elia Kazan in the late nineteen forties.

When Billy Wilder was casting Some Like It Hot, he’d chosen Edward G. Robinson to play Little Bonaparte, opposite George Raft and Pat O’Brien. When the two had a falling out, however, someone suggested Nehemiah Persoff for the part. The rest, as they, is history. When Barbra Streisand sang the moving “Papa, Can You Hear Me” in Yentl, she was singing to Nehemiah Persoff in a performance that, I’d like to believe, most effortlessly captured this remarkable actor’s gentle soul.

I shall remain forever grateful to have spent such joyous hours with this blessed soul … and for the gift of your friendship, dearest Nehemiah, I can only express my heartfelt gratitude. God Bless and Keep You.

2 thoughts on ““Papa Can You Hear Me” …Precious Moments With Nehemiah Persoff

  1. I’ve been binge-watching Mission Impossible recently, and usually check IMDB for the actors in the episode I’m watching. So I happened to be watching an episode with him in it on his 100th birthday.

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