Fifty years ago, The Twilight Zone, one of the best written series to air on TV, got its start. Ten episodes into the inaugural season, Cambria resident Nehemiah Persoff appeared in an episode called “Judgment Night.”
“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,” Persoff (known as Nicky to his friends) has said.
There wasn’t much love to give his “Judgment Night” character, Carl Lanser, a U-boat kapitan lieutenant who torpedoes a merchant ship and machine guns the survivors. Then, in a turn of the karmic wheel, Lanser finds he has to live on the doomed ship, the victim of his own actions each night throughout eternity.
That Persoff, born of Jewish heritage in Jerusalem in August 1919, took the role of a Nazi sub captain wasn’t a stretch for one of the busiest and hardest-working character actors on stage, screen and television — many of his roles involved thugs, hoods and bandits.
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Rent Billy Wilder’s 1958 “Some Like It Hot” and check out his comical gangster, Little Bonaparte, a bald-headed crime boss with a hearing aid the size of a phone receiver dangling from his ear.
In a memorable scene, he tells assembled crime family members: “Thank you, fellow opera-lovers. It’s been 10 years since I elected myself president of dis organization — an’ if I do say so, you made da right choice. Let’s look at da record: In da lass fissel year we made a hundred an’ twelve million dollars before taxes — only we ain’t paying no taxes!”
If you don’t recognize the name, the face and voice are certainly familiar; he played hundreds of key characters — from the cabbie who overhears Marlon Brando’s plaint to Rod Steiger about how he “coulda been a contendah” in “On the Waterfront,” to Barbra Streisand’s father in “Yentl.”
A gift for dialect and an uncanny ability to fully turn on an emotional dime — whether as Mexican desperado or the voice-over as Papa Mousekewitz in the “An American Tail” series of animated films — Persoff was rarely out of work during his 50-year career. By his own reckoning, he could never have dreamed that the arc of that career would span everything from abject poverty to his eventual status as one of Hollywood’s A-List character actors.
“All of us were dirt poor, but we were all working together,” Persoff says of his childhood in Palestine. “Our home had five children; Mother took in an orphan and had three non-paying boarders. But it was the happiest house with singing, dancing and joking. It obviously left a mark on me.”
After immigrating to America, serving a stint in the U.S. Army and then becoming an electrician for the New York subway system, he was eking out a living when a girlfriend suggested acting classes.
“I was living in a basement, really hungry and had to pawn a ring my father gave me. So I took an audition at Actors Studio and was accepted.
We had a meeting in a little theater on 39th Street and sat on a bench on the stage, and I found I was sitting next to Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, John Forsythe, Karl Malden, Cloris Leachman, Julie Harris, Eli Wallach and wife Anne Jackson.
“Suddenly, a whole world opened up for me. Suddenly, I could go to posh apartments because you mingle socially. I went to Park Avenue addresses and estates in New Haven. Everything was opened up, an entirely new social life. It was in less than a matter of weeks that this came about. I was a tough kid from the streets, and many of them were too, but I was in culture shock.”
He readily credits his wife of 58 years, Thia, for keeping his feet on the ground.
“Acting makes it almost impossible not to feel invincible that everything you do will be excused. But with Thia, the moment I’d get home and begin to push a little, she’d say, ‘That’s not true.’ She constantly kept me on the ground.”
He pretty much gave up acting in the late 1990s after stage productions of “I’m Not Rappaport” and a one-man biographical show, “Sholem Aleichem,” winning Los Angeles and San Francisco critic awards and Best Show of the Year honors.
A new art form
These days the 20-year Cambria resident can be found painting oils in the Impressionistic style, and showing his work at the Arthur Van Rhyn Art Gallery on Moonstone Beach Drive. It’s a passion he’s pursued since moving to town and joining Van Rhyn’s plein air art group, the Wednesday Irregulars.
“When I met Art and the Wednesday Irregulars, they nurtured and inspired me. I was painting from morning through night. It just consumed me.
If I can call attention to the artists in Cambria, it will be some repayment to the good people who have done so much for me.”
Persoff also realizes an immutable truth: After he turned 90 in August, he wants to share his paintings with the public while alive, rather than posthumously.
“What do I want from my art?” he asks non-rhetorically, with a hint of Little Bonaparte in his voice. “Recognition. When do I want it? Now!”
The Arthur Van Rhyn Art Gallery is open to the public on weekends. For other times, call 927-5576 for an appointment.