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Nehemiah Persoff, Actor in ‘Yentl,’ ‘Some Like It Hot,’ Dies at 102

Nehemiah Persoff
Everett Collection

Nehemiah Persoff, who appeared as Barbra Streisand’s rabbi father in “Yentl” and had roles in hundreds of films and TV series including “Some Like It Hot” and “Twins,” died Tuesday in San Luis Obispo, Calif. He was 102.

His death was confirmed by his daughter, Dahlia Reano. Beyond prolific, Persoff racked up almost 200 credits in film and TV in a career that began in the very earliest days of television.

Persoff broke through in the 1959 movie “Some Like It Hot,” in which he played mobster boss Little Bonaparte. (The actor had been the last surviving member of the cast.) Early in his career, he was known for playing villainous tough guys, such as in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Wrong Man,” starring Henry Fonda, and “Al Capone,” starring Rod Steiger, in which he had a substantial role as Johnny Torrio, the mobster who mentored Capone only to be replaced by him. Similarly, on TV, he had a recurring role as gangster Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik on “The Untouchables.”

The actor most recently appeared in the Ted Post-directed anthology film “4 Faces” in 1999 and, for a couple of “An American Tail” sequels, “The Treasure of Manhattan Island” and “The Mystery of the Night Monster” in 1998 and 1999, he voiced Papa Mousekowitz, continuing a tradition of voicing that role that dated back to the original “An American Tail” film in 1986.

In the 1988 comedy “Twins,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito, Persoff played the head of the experiment that resulted in the mismatched brothers.

In one of his last screen appearances, Persoff gave a powerful, complex performance in a 1993 episode of “Law & Order” in which at first it appears that Persoff’s David Steinmetz, an elderly Jewish tailor, killed his wife out of mercy. Later suspicions grow that he may have killed his wife to prevent the truth about his nefarious role in the Holocaust from coming out.

It would take some doing to count the number of times Persoff portrayed a rabbi. He played one on “Magnum: P.I.,” “L.A. Law” and “Chicago Hope,” and in Martin Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ,” to name some instances.

The actor played Russian heads of state at least twice: For the 1980 telepic “F.D.R.: The Last Year,” he played Josef Stalin, and for the 1983 TV movie “Sadat,” in which Louis Gossett Jr. portrayed the Egyptian leader, Persoff portrayed Leonid Brezhnev. In the landmark telepic “The Missiles of October,” he played Soviet Foreign Minister Andre Gromyko.

He also played Benito Mussolini in a 1959 episode of “Playhouse 90.” In James Cagney’s last-hurrah semi-musical “Never Steal Anything Small” (1959), centered around shenanigans involving a union election, Persoff played the union president, Pinelli.

One of his memorable roles came in “Twilight Zone” episode “Judgment Night,” in which he played the captain of a WWII U-boat condemned to relive over and over his destruction of a defenseless British ship. He played a German of a very different stripe in 1976 feature “Voyage of the Damned” — a poor Jew seeking to flee the Nazi regime and reunite in Havana with his daughter – who, is unbeknownst to him, a prostitute.

In the film “Green Mansions,” starring Audrey Hepburn and Anthony Perkins, Persoff played a Venezuelan shopkeeper, and for a 1953 episode of “You Are There,” he played a Spanish conquistador. In the Western caper pic “The Badlanders” (1958), starring Alan Ladd and Ernest Borgnine, Persoff played a Mexican demolition expert who is key to the heroes’ scheme.

Persoff played an Albanian general in the 1971 spy comedy “Mrs  Pollifax Spy,” starring Rosalind Russell and adapted by the actress.

In Anthony Mann’s unsentimental Korean War movie “Men at War” (1957), starring Robert Ryan, Persoff did excellent, unsettling supporting work, playing Sgt. Lewis, who loses his cool.

Persoff gave an outstanding performance in another movie starring Robert Ryan, the snowy, very tense, Andre de Toth-directed Western “Day of the Outlaw,” in which Persoff played Dan, the foreman for Ryan’s character.

The actor auspiciously made his film debut in an uncredited role as a taxi driver in film classic “On the Waterfront” in 1954. He next appeared in Bogart’s last film, “The Harder They Fall.”

A Jew born in Jerusalem in what was then the British-ruled Palestine Mandate, Persoff found himself captivated by the circus and cinema as a child. He moved to the U.S. along with his family in 1929, when he was about 9 — just before the stock market crash. After working as an electrician in the New York subway system for several years and serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Persoff took up acting in the 1940s. He auditioned for the Actors Studio in 1947:

“My friend (actor) Lou Gilbert told me that if I wanted to audition for the Actors Studio, he would arrange it,” Persoff told Cinema Retro magazine. “I jumped at the chance. Elia Kazan was one of the busiest directors around, and to study with him and be in his pool of actors was every actor’s dream. I was in summer stock playing the lead role in George Bernard Shaw’s ‘The Devil’s Disciple.’ I knew that Kazan was with the Group Theatre along with writer Clifford Odets. I thought of doing something from an Odets play but then reasoned that perhaps a more classic approach might work better for me, so I did a monologue from Shaw. Two weeks later, I received an invitation to come to the first meeting of the Actors Studio. I took my seat on a bench and slowly looked around. There were John Garfield, Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Montgomery Clift, Kim Hunter and Maureen Stapleton, among others. Kazan began to speak and told us his aim was to create a group of actors who work as he does, who speak his language, and that the people assembled in this room were the cream of the talent available. This was heady stuff for a nearly starving young actor. I studied with Lee Strasberg. He was brilliant and helped me find myself as an actor… I owe him much. Among other scenes, I did a Noel Coward piece with Kim Stanley.”

Persoff continued to stage work, in addition to movies and television, throughout his life, from Tel Aviv to New York to Los Angeles. He appeared on Broadway more than a dozen times between his debut in 1947 and 1959.

In later years, the actor appeared onstage in Los Angeles and elsewhere in leading roles in “Rosebloom,” at the Mark Taper Forum; “The Dybbuk,” at the Taper; as Tevye in many productions of “Fiddler on the Roof”; as Fagin in “Oliver”; as Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha”; as Captain Hook in “Peter Pan”; in “I’m Not Rappaport” in San Francisco; in “Cold Storage”; as Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” at the Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Ontario; and in his one-man show “Sholom Aleichem,” which he performed throughout the U.S., Canada and Australia.

After moving to Cambria, Calif., he took up painting and published a memoir “The Many Faces of Nehemiah” at the age of 101, in which he wrote, “Acting is an art, on stage or screen. It’s a distillation of certain moments in life, but it’s not life itself.”

He was predeceased by his wife of 69 years, Thia.

In addition to his daughter Dahlia Reano, he is survived by children Jeff Persoff, Dan Persof and Perry Persoff and grandchildren Stacey Persoff, Joey Persoff, Michelle Persoff, Jacqueline Reano and Bridget Reano.