Cambrian: Arts & Events

For Cambria's Nehemiah Persoff, art isn’t just an act

This watercolor by Nehemiah Persoff is indicative of the 15 paintings the Cambria resident has donated for an upcoming auction to show appreciation for the artists who helped change his life.
This watercolor by Nehemiah Persoff is indicative of the 15 paintings the Cambria resident has donated for an upcoming auction to show appreciation for the artists who helped change his life. Special to The Cambrian

Relaxing in his Moonstone Beach Drive home, former actor Nehemiah Persoff is all set for his show Aug. 4 — not a movie or television show, but an auction of 15 of his paintings to benefit the Cambria Center for the Arts.

The art donations are his way of thanking local artists who helped him fulfill a dream from his youth by encouraging him in his early endeavors during The Wednesday Irregulars outdoor-painting excursions, Persoff said.

“That was sort of a life change for me,” he said, noting that it was as significant as the time near the end of the Great Depression in New York when a young woman suggested he take an acting class instead of studying art.

That kickstarted a 50-plus-year career on stage and screen as one of his generation’s great character actors. He slowed down a bit in the mid-1980s to explore an old love, painting, and after moving to Cambria with wife, Thia, in 1990, he continued acting until 1997 and devoted more time to painting the beauty of the Central Coast.

Although he’s now behind the easel instead of in front of the camera, he remains fully aware of his audience.

“An artist enjoys his paintings whether he is going to sell them or not,” Persoff said. “But when he gets a chance to display his paintings and other people see them, it takes on a new dimension and he tries harder, aims higher.”Feedback from other artists was crucial to honing his skills, Persoff stressed.

“When you show your paintings at home, everyone likes them because they don’t want to hurt your feelings,” he said with a smile.

With a worldwide fan base, Persoff attributes sales from his early exhibits and current website primarily to his acting career.

His face may not have launched a thousand ships, and thousands of people can’t quite pinpoint when or where they’ve seen him; those who do seldom know his name.

But with his acting skills and a knack for dialects, Persoff was versatile and played many roles. He was a different man in every movie (45 feature films) and television show (400 guest appearances) in which he appeared, including the cab driver in “On The Waterfront” and a role in “Some Like It Hot.”

Along with the upcoming auction, attendees can see Persoff in action on two popular 1960s television shows: “Gilligan’s Island,” in the episode titled “The Little Dictator,” and as the father of a young Robert Redford in “Route 66.”

The event will also be a birthday celebration for Persoff, who will soon turn 95.

Persoff paints for the joy, not for the money. He credits such sensibilities to his upbringing, to a family where money meant little other than providing the basic comforts. He was 10 when they emigrated from Palestine in 1929, where the important things were love for each other and the land, the arts and music.

Clearly Persoff wants the auction to be a financial success to plump up Allied Arts Association’s coffers, but it will serve a dual purpose. Buying art from him or any artist, he said, “That’s the supreme compliment.”

Birthday celebration

What: Nehemiah Persoff birthday celebration, silent art auction and TV show segments

When: 4-7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 4

Where: Cambria Center for the Arts, 1350 Main St., Cambria

Admission: Free

More information: 927-5951; www.cambriacenterforthearts.org

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