Born in 1919 (some sources say 1920) in Jerusalem, Nehemiah Persoff emigrated with his family to America in 1929.
Following schooling at the Hebrew Technical Institute of New York, he found a job as a subway electrician doing signal maintenance until an interest in the theater altered the direction of his life. He joined amateur groups and subsequently won a scholarship to the Dramatic Workshop in New York.
This led to what would have been his Broadway debut in a production of "Eve of St. Mark", but he was fired before the show opened. He made his official New York debut in a production of "The Emperor's New Clothes" in 1940.
WWII interrupted his young career in 1942, returning to the stage after his hitch in the Army was over, three years later. He sought work in stock plays and became an intern of Stella Adler and, as a result, a strong exponent of the Actor's Studio. Discovered by Charles Laughton and cast in his production of "Galileo" in 1947, Persoff made his film debut a year later with an uncredited bit in The Naked City (1948).
Short, dark, chunky-framed and with a distinct talent for dialects, Persoff became known primarily for his ethnic villainy, usually playing authoritative Eastern Europeans. In a formidable career that had him portraying everything from cab drivers to Joseph Stalin, standout film roles would include Leo in The Harder They Fall (1956) with Humphrey Bogart, Gene Conforti in Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (1956), Albert in This Angry Age (1958) and gangster Johnny Torrio in Al Capone (1959). That same year he played another gangster, the small role of Little Bonaparte, in the classic comedy Some Like It Hot (1959).
He was a durable performer during TV's "Golden Age" ("Gunsmoke" (1955), "Twilight Zone" (1959)) and well beyond ("Chicago Hope" (1994), "Law & Order" (1990)), playing hundreds of intense, volatile and dominating characters.
In later years, his characters' hearts grew a bit softer as Barbra Streisand's Jewish father in Yentl (1983) and the voice of Papa Mousekewitz in the An American Tail (1986) will attest.
Later stage work included well-received productions of "I'm Not Rappaport" and his biographical one-man show "Sholem Aleichem".
When declining health and high blood pressure forced him to slow down, Persoff took up painting in 1985, studying sketching in Los Angeles. Specializing in watercolor, he has created around 100 works of art, many of which have been exhibited up and down the coast of California.
|Thia Persov||(22 August 1951 - present) 4 children|
In his early years he posed for painters who worked out of studios in Manhattan's Union Square.
Once asked why he chose acting as a profession, he stated that the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe compelled him to prove himself worthy of his "gift of life."
When the Actors Studio was formed in 1947 Persoff was in the first "beginner's" class directed by Elia Kazan. Among his fellow students were Julie Harris, Steven Hill, Cloris Leachman, 'James Whitmore' (QV), Martin Balsam, Kim Hunter and Jocelyn Brando (Marlon Brando's sister.).
Despite the fact that I've been an actor for more than 50 years, I'd never really looked at nature. But now [since painting] I see the light dancing on the trees, the light of the water and the rocks. Everything in life has taken on a completely different look.
If I'm playing a good guy, I'll try to show that he has some bad in him. If I'm playing a bad guy, I'll give him some dignity and love.
The difference between film and stage acting is clearly a matter of reaching the audience. On stage, the actor has to project vocally so he can be heard in the last seats of the balcony. This alone makes the acting theatrical and unnatural...The film actor must rely on his face, on his eyes mainly, (on his thoughts) to communicate with the audience.
When you are turned down as an actor, it's not only your talent that's in question, but your entire being: your looks, face, hair, the way you speak, your personality, ethnicity, everything about you.
(April 2003) Living in California and creating artwork
(March 2005) Still active, he teaches acting in Cambria, California.
(November 2012) Continues to live in Cambria, California
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