Actors Studio, Alvah Bessie, Arthur Miller, Billy Wilder, Bus Stop, Charles Lederer, Clash By Night, Death of a Salesman, Edward G. Robinson, Elia Kazan, Lee Strasberg, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Nehemiah Persoff, Some Like It Hot, The Sex Symbol, The Symbol, Tony Curtis
The great character actor Nehemiah Persoff, whose many roles included the mobster ‘Little Bonaparte’ in Some Like It Hot, has died at the grand old age of 102.
Nehemiah was born in Jerusalem in 1919. His parents had met as amateur actors fleeing the Jewish pogroms in Odessa, Ukraine for Israel. His father became a teacher and moved to New York, with the family joining him later. “This was 1929, close to the market crash that led to the Great Depression,” he wrote. “I hated this dirty place, Brooklyn … I cried myself to sleep for two years before I began to accept the fact that America was my new home.”
On the streets of Brooklyn, poverty and violence were commonplace, and the young Nehemiah – known to his friends as ‘Nicky’ – soon learned to fight back. “Actually, many of the so-called ‘lowlifes’ I knew were not bad guys at all,” he recalled. “They did what they did because that was the only way they could live. In playing gangsters later on, I always tried to find some good in them.”
He escaped by watching movies, and re-enacting them for friends and family. He first trained as an engineer and took a job on the subway before winning a scholarship to the New Theatre League, where his classmates included a young Shelley Winters. Following the teachings of Stanislavski, the students were taught to be observant and study people’s behaviour. “The fact is I’d been doing this since childhood,” he reflected.
At 19, he began studying with Stella Adler at the Dramatic Workshop, before being drafted in 1942. After the war ended, he returned to New York and was blown away by Stella’s latest discovery, Marlon Brando, in A Streetcar Named Desire. “It set a new bar for his fellow actors,” Persoff recalled, “and most of them unashamedly tried to copy him, including myself.”
In 1947, he became an inaugural member of the Actors Studio, joining the beginners’ class under Elia Kazan, alongside Julie Harris and Maureen Stapleton. For his second year, he was taught by Lee Strasberg. “You work like a horse with blinders,” Lee told him. “You decide what you want to do and head straight for it. Nothing can change your mind. You can’t do that … Acting is like an iceberg. Ninety percent underwater and ten above.”
At the same time, he was cast as Charles Laughton’s protégé in a Broadway play, Galileo. “Don’t pay any attention to the crap they teach you at the studio,” Laughton told him. “Acting is speaking words in the proper rhythm, they each carry their own weight.”
In 1950 Nehemiah visited his parents, who had returned to Israel, and starred in a Hebrew production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. During his two-year stay he married Thia Persov, a distant relative who had served as a military nurse in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Over nearly 70 years of marriage, they raised four children together.
After returning to New York, he was cast in another Williams play, Camino Real (1953), which closed after just seven performances. “It was extremely hard to continue on that kind of uncertainty,” he admitted. “I loved theatre but I loved it more when I was well paid.”
In 1954, he won a pivotal, though uncredited movie role in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, as a cab driver in the remarkable scene where Marlon Brando tells Rod Steiger, ‘I coulda been a contender.’ “I sat on a milk box with Brando and Steiger behind me,” he remembered. “When it was time for my close-up, Kazan whispered in my ear to imagine that ‘the guy behind you killed your mother.’ When I saw the film, I was surprised to see how effective the close-up turned out.”
Like many other New York actors, Persoff also appeared regularly on live television, including The Thief, a 1955 episode of The U.S. Steel Hour, starring James Dean. “I was one of those fortunate stage actors who was also liked by the camera,” he said. “It gave my face strength that I did not have off camera.”
He also continued attending the Actors Studio. “One of the reasons why I admired Lee Strasberg was that behind his seriousness was a sharp sense of humour,” he wrote. “I valued Strasberg’s teaching more than any other teacher I ever had, and I’ll always be grateful to him for undoing the harm that other acting teachers had unknowingly inflicted on me.”
Rod Steiger recommended Persoff for the part of a crooked accountant in The Harder They Fall (1956), a boxing drama, opposite Humphrey Bogart in his final performance. After complaining to director Mark Robson that Bogart underplayed his reaction in a scene, Nehemiah was invited to view the daily rushes. “Bogart saw the boxer come in and his eyebrows raised up, just a little,” he recalled. “That was certainly enough on the big screen.” Later that year, he acted with another screen legend, Henry Fonda, in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man.
In 1958 he played the union boss and gangster, Albert Anastasia, in Never Steal Anything Small, starring James Cagney. Director Charles Lederer arranged for them to meet, but on the day, Anastasia was murdered. Shortly afterwards, Lederer was playing cards with filmmaker Billy Wilder, who grumbled that Edward G. Robinson had walked away from his upcoming movie, Some Like It Hot. (Little Bonaparte’s name was a nod to Little Caesar, the 1931 crime drama which made Robinson a star.)
“Why don’t you ask Nicky Persoff?” Lederer suggested. “He’s a fine actor and can play anything.” Wilder had never heard of him, but leading man Tony Curtis had been a fellow student at the Dramatic Workshop, and told Wilder that he would be great in the role. “When I met Billy the following morning, I did not have to say much,” Persoff recalled. “He was sold on me. He asked me if I would shave my head and I agreed. That was all that was said.”
“The recommendation from Tony Curtis persuaded Billy the most,” he admitted. This surprised him, as the two actors had parted on bad terms after working together on The Flies, a play by Jean-Paul Sartre, in which the cast was supposed to be in mourning, and had to cover themselves with ashes. “Everyone did except Tony,” he wrote. “He had his hair slicked back and blue make-up around his eyes. He looked great. I asked him what he was doing. He said movie producer George Pal was in the audience … Two weeks later, Tony was in Hollywood.”
Whether Persoff had met Marilyn Monroe at the Actors Studio, or on the set of Some Like It Hot, is unclear (they did not have any scenes together.) He appears in an explosive sequence near the end of Wilder’s classic comedy, set in 1929, in which two rival crime syndicates meet at a banquet. Addressing the gathered ‘Friends of Italian Opera,’ Little Bonaparte gives an introductory speech: “It’s been ten years since I elected myself president of this organisation – and if I say so myself, you made the right choice … In the last fiscal year, our income was a hundred and twelve million dollars before taxes – only we ain’t paying no taxes.”
Turning to his arch-rival, Spats Columbo (George Raft), he says, “Of course, he still has a lot to learn. That big noise he made on St. Valentine’s Day – that wasn’t very good for public relations …” After a hitman jumps out of a birthday cake and opens fire on Spats and his crew, Bonaparte tells Detective Mulligan (Pat O’Brien), “There was something in that cake that didn’t agree with them.” Mulligan replies, “My compliments to the chef. And nobody’s leaving this room till I get the recipe!”
“I had no idea of how I might play the role, but I wasn’t worried about it,” Persoff wrote. “At this time in my career, I had great confidence. I enjoyed improvising in front of the camera.” During rehearsal, he overheard one of the gangsters saying, “Who the hell is this guy? I thought it would be Edward G. Robinson.”
“I was in that head mobster state of mind by then,” Persoff recalled, “and my blood pressure rose.” He challenged the man, who admitted he didn’t know Robinson, but insisted he would be better for the part. “Get this guy outta here,” Persoff called to the assistant director. The extra refused to leave until Billy Wilder said, “Get him outta here. He’s insulting one of our stars and holding up the work.”
“The extra was taken out and put somewhere far away from me,” Persoff recalled. “Billy called action, and I walked on as Little Bonaparte. I noticed that the people who were filming Porgy and Bess next door (Sammy Davis Jr, Dorothy Dandridge, and Persoff’s Actors Studio buddy, Sidney Poitier) came in to see the scene that we were about to film.”
As Persoff began his speech, however, Wilder interrupted him by telling a story that might shed light on the scene he was about to do. Wilder didn’t stop there, telling joke after joke about their honoured guests. “The result of this was a stage giddy with laughter, mixed with my own annoyance,” Persoff wrote. “I was ready to do the scene before, but all of these elements, the laughter in the room and my anger at being interrupted, came together in a way I am sure Billy designed. He’d planned this as he planned all of the wonderful scenes in that film.”
“It’s not the character I wanted to play,” Persoff admitted. “The character on screen is Billy’s creation.” Many years later, Persoff received a letter from a doctor in Dubai, who told him that as a struggling medical student in Beirut, he had made extra money to cover his college tuition by re-enacting Little Bonaparte’s speech at social functions.
In 1959, Persoff played Jerry, the fisherman husband of Mae (Patricia Neal), who is attracted to the exciting, but cruel Earl (Sam Wanamaker) in a BBC adaptation of Clifford Odets’ Clash By Night, last seen as a 1952 movie with Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan, and Paul Douglas as Jerry. In the TV movie, which is now believed lost, Suzanne Finlay reprised the supporting role of cannery worker Peggy, first played by Marilyn Monroe.
In the same year, Persoff was cast as Benito Mussolini in an episode of the acclaimed anthology series, Judgement at Nuremberg; and in 1961, he appeared in Bus Stop, a TV series loosely based on William Inge’s play. Bearing little resemblance to the 1956 movie, it focused instead on the disparate travellers who passed through Grace’s Diner, starring singer Marilyn Maxwell as Grace and Joan Freeman as waitress Elma.
During the 1960s and 70s, Persoff relocated to Los Angeles and worked mostly in television, making regular appearances in classic TV shows like The Untouchables, Naked City, Gunsmoke, and Mission: Impossible, plus guest roles in The Twilight Zone, Gilligan’s Island, Mannix, and The Streets of San Francisco. He also worked onstage in another Odets play, The Big Knife; and after playing Tevye in the musical, Fiddler on the Roof; he starred in a one-man show, Sholem Aleichem, based on the Yiddish author’s short stories.
In 1970, he was the early favourite to play Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather. “Francis Ford Coppola, as I later read, wanted a known actor in the role,” he explained. “One of the film’s producers, Robert Evans, wanted a lesser known who would be easier on their budget, which was me. I was of course disappointed at not getting the job. Like everyone else, I was most impressed when I saw Brando’s performance. It was a masterful job.”
Four years later, he played a studio boss in The Sex Symbol, a TV movie based on blacklisted screenwriter Alvah Bessie’s 1966 novel, The Symbol. The lead character, ‘Kelly Williams,’ was originally an amalgam of Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe. As played by Connie Stevens, however, she was blatantly Marilyn-inspired. Other cast members included Persoff’s former classmate, Shelley Winters; and actors Rand Brooks and Don Murray, both of whom had worked with Monroe. First broadcast as part of ABC’s anthology series, Tuesday Night at the Movies, an extended version was shown theatrically overseas.
Persoff’s next big-screen role of note was in Voyage of the Damned (1976), based on the real-life journey of the SS Saint Louis in 1939, carrying hundreds of German Jewish refugees across the Atlantic, only to be forced back to occupied Antwerp. “We were filming in a warehouse, on the dock in Barcelona,” he recalled. “While we were filming inside, the crew was working outside, changing the place to look like Hamburg with Nazi flags all over. When we went outside, my friend started shivering and I had to keep him from falling down. I learned that day that he had spent time in the camps.”
Persoff continued working in television, with appearances on Baretta, Columbo, Rich Man, Poor Man, and Hawaii Five-O. In 1983, he played one of his most important movie roles, as Barbra Streisand’s father in Yentl. A day before filming, Streisand – who was directing as well as starring – invited him to her London flat. “We sat across from each other at the table over a cup of tea,” he remembered. “She started to talk about never having had a father, about how difficult it was for her in childhood, but mostly about how much she missed having a father … Later, I realised that her talk about her father was not idle conversation. It was astute direction.”
“Several days later, we filmed my death scene,” Persoff wrote. “After we finished shooting the scene, Barbra insisted I stay on the set in my bed. She did not want me to leave when she went to the adjacent set to film ‘Poppa Can You Hear Me?’ She came back into the bedroom. She looked at me. She ran her hand through my hair and rehearsed the rest of the song right next to her poppa’s death bed. These are the delicious moments in our profession.”
In the same year, Persoff returned to the stage, playing Willy Loman in a Canadian revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. The success of Yentl also brought further film offers, and he would provide the voice of ‘Papa Mousekowitz’ in Disney’s animated movie, An American Tail (1985.) He also played a Rabbi in Martin Scorsese’s controversial The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), followed by a supporting role in Twins, the hit comedy starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito.
Throughout the 1990s, he continued appearing in prime-time TV shows like L.A. Law, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Murder, She Wrote, Law & Order, and Chicago Hope. His last, uncredited screen role was as another Rabbi in Angels in America (2003), an acclaimed mini-series about the AIDS crisis. After suffering a minor stroke, he retired from acting and moved to Cambria, a seaside village in California, and found a new vocation as a painter.
“I realised what a load I had been carrying, what pressure I had been under all these years as an actor,” he wrote. “Fifty years of my life, while spent with great joy, were also spent under great tension which I never suspected that I had. I found that here in Cambria, putting my energy into my painting freed me of the need to project myself as an actor in front of the public. I could relax.”
In 2021, Nehemiah Persoff published his autobiography, The Many Faces of Nehemiah, and mourned the recent loss of his beloved wife, Thia. He died of heart failure on April 5, 2022, at a rehabilitation facility in San Luis Obispo, California. “Nicky lived a long loving life,” Barbra Streisand wrote on Twitter. “I’ll miss you Papa!!”