Nehemiah Persoff

Active - 1948 - 2021  |   Born - Aug 2, 1919   |   Genres - Drama

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Trivia buffs and diehard fans of Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront will know that the non-speaking cab driver in the film's famed 'taxicab scene between Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger was noted character actor Nehemiah Persoff. An American resident from age 9, the Jerusalem-born Persoff spent his early adulthood working for the New York subway system. Asked in later years why he chose acting as a profession, Persoff would comment that the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe compelled him to prove himself worthy of his "gift of life." On stage in community and non-professional productions from 1940, he studied with Stella Adler at the Actor's Studio before graduating to Broadway. His first film appearance, in 1948, was in the Manhattan-based The Naked City. After attaining prominence in the mid-1950s, Persoff alternated between villainy and sympathetic roles, utilizing his ear for dialects to depict a wide array of nationalities. He was often cast as a gangster, both serious (Johnny Torrio in the 1959 feature Capone, Jake Guzik on the TV series The Untouchables) and satiric (Little Bonaparte in 1959's Some Like It Hot). His credits in the 1980s included Stalin in the 1980 TV movie FDR: The Last Year, Barbra Streisand's father in Yentl (1983), and the robust voice of Papa Mousekewitz in the 1986 animated feature An American Tail.

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