Nehemiah Persoff, who has died aged 102, was a busy character actor and one of the first members of the Actors Studio in New York; he studied there with Marlon Brando under Elia Kazan and worked on screen with Humphrey Bogart and the directors George Stevens, Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder.
Although he was not a household name, Persoff’s face became well-known, and with his natural talent for dialects he played a variety of villains and characters whose first language was not English.
In the Billy Wilder comedy Some Like it Hot (1959), he was Little Bonaparte, the gangster boss who presides over the “conference for Friends of Italian Opera”, telling syndicate members: “In duh lass fissel year, we made one hundred an’ twelve million dollars before taxes – only we ain’t payin’ no taxes!” before the scene ends in a bloodbath.
Nehemiah Persoff was born into a poor family in Jerusalem, in what was shortly to become British Mandate Palestine, on August 2 1919, to Shmuel Persoff and Puah (née Holman). The family emigrated to the US when he was nine. “We had nothing,” he recalled, “and although the future was uncertain it was better for my father to have a dream than live a nightmare.”
Their timing was poor as they arrived on the eve of the Stock Market Crash of 1929. After education at New York’s Hebrew Technical Institute, Nehemiah worked on the New York subway as a signal maintenance man.
He dabbled in amateur theatre as early as 1939, though his subway job prevented him from taking other work. He went ahead regardless and trod the boards with a local theatre group under the pseudonym Nick Perry.
When America entered the war, Persoff signed up to join the US Army and was assigned to an acting company to entertain troops around the world. On his return in 1945 he joined a dramatic workshop in New York under a scholarship, later moving to the Actors Studio.
He made his first credited Broadway debut in The Life of Galileo (1947), followed by Sundown Beach (1948). The following year, he made his film debut as “man smiling on subway” in Jules Dassin’s film noir chiller Naked City (1948).
He took on a variety of television and stage roles before Elia Kazan gave him a small role as the cabbie driving Marlon Brando during the “I coulda been a contender” scene in On the Waterfront (1954).
On Broadway the same year he was in Reclining Figure, followed by a role as the dapper Leo in the film The Harder they Fall (1956), with Humphrey Bogart, who, Persoff recalled, “often teared up during filming – he was both a pain in the neck and passionate”.
Alfred Hitchcock gave him a small role in The Wrong Man (1956), and he played Platoon Sergeant Lewis in Anthony Mann’s Korean War drama Men in War.
From the 1960s to the 1980s Persoff was in constant demand for television roles in series such as Gunsmoke, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. He was Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik in The Untouchables and an Egyptian cryptologist in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
On the big screen he had small roles as Shemaiah the prophet in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), in Voyage of the Damned (1978), and as Reb Mendel, Barbra Streisand’s ‘‘Papa”, in Yentl (1983).
During the 1990s he began to wind down his career, although he voiced Papa Mousekewitz in the animated film An American Tail and its sequels. He came out of retirement to play a rabbi in the HBO miniseries Angels in America (2003).
In 1951 he married Thia Persov. She died in 2021 and he is survived by their daughter and three sons.
Nehemiah Persoff, born August 2 1919, died April 5 2022