“Papa, Can You Hear Me” … Remembering Nehemiah Persoff

Preface by Steve Vertlieb: It was with profound sadness on April 5, 2022, that I learned of the passing of Nehemiah Persoff. He was one of the most versatile, beloved character actors in both motion picture and television history. He was also my friend, and I shall ever revere his memory.

I had the very great honor of spending two unforgettable hours at the feet of this legendary actor, during the late Summer of 2019 at his home in California, after he had just turned 100 years young. He celebrated the attainment of his 102nd birthday on August 2nd, 2021, and remained a vital creative presence within the artistic community.

As we spoke about a career encompassing nearly three quarters of a century, he confided in me that he felt that his life had been a failure. Astonished, I asked him why he would possibly have thought of his accomplishments in that way. He told me that his brothers had been common laborers, toiling with their hands in exhaustive physical work, while he had chosen a comparatively leisurely craft as an actor. The expenditure of their blood, sweat, and tears haunted his memory during his final years, troubling the conflicted corridors of his thoughts, believing that he had somehow lost his integrity, and failed his family. He was, in the end, a traditional old-world Jew who believed that honest labor was the only way to achieve “manhood,” and be considered by his peers a “Mentsch.”

I fumbled ineptly for words of reassurance to express my reverence and sincere admiration for this towering, truly gifted actor, telling him that he was cherished by millions, and that his sublime artistry would live on in the hearts of all those whose lives had been influenced and touched by his brilliance and versatility. His fellow actors referred to him, adoringly, as “Nicky.” In subsequent months he would ask me to call him that, as well.

This affectionate tribute to a cherished actor was written during the Summer of 2021 in order to celebrate his 102nd birthday. I remain both honored and proud to remember him as my friend.

Goodbye, Nicky … I Love You.

By Steve Vertlieb: Here is, perhaps, the most exciting moment of my pilgrimage to Los Angeles and Hollywood, California two years ago. 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 visit him, and personally pay my respects. Born in Palestine (now Jerusalem) on August 2, 1919, this gifted actor was then 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 “Some People Say,” is screen history. His hilariously venomous tirades against George Raft provide the classic comedy with some of its most iconic moments.

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. When Ms. Streisand was honored with a Life Achievement Award by The American Film Institute, Nehemiah Persoff rose memorably from his table, smiled sweetly at the actress, and said “Barbara, you’re just like a daughter to me … You never phone … You never write.” It was an adorable moment between these two stars from vastly different generations.

Mr. Persoff occupied countless memorable characterizations throughout the nineteen fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties on television anthology series, most notably on both The Untouchables, and Naked City. He also voiced the lovely dialogue between father and son as “Papa Mousekewitz” in the beloved animated feature An American Tail in 1986.

However, it was his sensitive performance as Vladis Dvorovoi in an episode from the first season of Route 66, entitled “Incident On A Bridge,” that has become my favorite performance by the actor during a storied lifetime of fabled big and small screen appearances. Playing a troubled laborer who falls in love with Lois Smith, as a mute serving girl, provided this pioneering dramatic series with some of its most memorable moments in a haunting, nearly tragic variation of the classic “Beauty and the Beast” fantasy.

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. Wishing you a joyous, loving, and healthy 102nd Birthday. May God Bless and Keep You Safe.

14 thoughts on ““Papa, Can You Hear Me” … Remembering Nehemiah Persoff

  1. I was just thinking of Mr. Persoff the other day – my first exposure to him was almost certainly his appearance on Gilligan’s Island.

  2. What a wonderful story. What a marvelous actor. Mister Persoff could play any character and do it perfectly. Loved him in Gilligan’s Island too. He was brilliant in the original Twilight Zone, “Judgement Night”. Cannot praise him enough. “Live long and prosper”. Thank you.

  3. I have been an avid fan of Mr. Persoff ever since the times he was on “The Untouchables”, I was about 13 then. When I saw that he had just turned 102, I was above thrilled and overjoyed, “Wow, great, he is still with us”. I thought to myself…Yep, that made my day…All the best to Mr. Persoff

  4. It is worth noting that I recently read an article about actors over the age of 100 who are still acting. I would certainly like to see Mr. Persoff in more performances.

  5. He’s still with us?!

    How wonderful. He was always excellent, even when the project didn’t deserve his talents.

  6. Just an excellent story about a truly wonderful and legendary man.Hope to see more stories about him.Great memories of him in countless movies and TV shows.

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  8. Great article about a great actor!! I remember him from “Some Like it Hot” and “Gilligan’s Island”, such a wonderful man!! A gift to us all!! Thanks for doing this, I’m sure he enjoyed the visit!!

  9. Thank you so much for sharing your encounter with Mr. Persoff. As I’m writing, I am watching this great actor in an episode of The Twilight Zone called “Judgement Night”. I too wondered what had become of him and decided to google his name to find out that he is still with us. Wonderful.

  10. Hi! I just saw Now You See Him on Amazon Video. Mr. Persoff is the lovely bad victim of this amazing Columbo 5th season episode. How is Mr. Persoff doing in 2022?

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  12. I was so sad to hear we lost this treasure of a man. I am so happy he lived so long and wish I could have met him, His oart in Some Like It Hot was wonderful.
    In fact he never gave a bad performance. The world is a little sadder place without him in it now. My deepest condolences to all of his family and pray I may meet him sometime on the other side.

  13. What a wonderful story! I did the same thing after seeing him in an episode of The Twilight Zone. He was also a painter.

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