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.