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Nehemiah Persoff GALACTICA.TV interview
Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Some time ago Mike Egnor caught up with Nehemiah Persoff, better known to Battlestar Galactica 1978 fans as the Eastern Alliance Leader in the episode "Experiment in Terra". Mike talks with him about his life long career and the many great parts he did, like with Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront, Ronald Colman in A Double Life, Humphrey Bogart in The Harder They Fall, Alfred Hitchcock on several occasions and of course his part on Battlestar Galactica.

This is Mike Egnor for GALACTICA.TV. Today I'm speaking with Nehemiah Persoff who played the Supreme Commandant of the Eastern Alliance in the episode "Experiment in Terra". Mr. Persoff I'd like to thank you for doing this interview.

My pleasure.

From what I understand you were born in what was then Jerusalem Palestine in 1919 and moved to the United States in 1929. Why did your parents decide to move to the United States?

Oh, it was kind of complicated. My father was a coppersmith and a jeweler. At that time he was teaching in an art school, but there was really nowhere to go. It was such a sparsely populated country that there was really nowhere for him to develop. So he thought he'd come here for a few years. After he came here, he decided that he'd like to give the family a chance to be here a while and get a taste of American life. Once the family was here, then some of us went back and some stayed behind.

How did you feel at a young age to move to another country?.

I didn't like it. I liked Israel -- it was Palestine then -- I liked it very much there. It was rural, everyone knew each other, all the neighbors. It was very different from the crowded metropolis of Brooklyn, New York.

actor Nehemiah Persoff, current picture

actor Nehemiah Persoff, current picture

I understood that you initially worked as a subway electrician doing signal maintenance?


Could you describe what that involved?

Well as the train sits on the tracks, the signal electricity goes through the tracks into the wheel of the train and creates a circuit. The train tracks are broken up into pieces, circuits that are insulated from each other, so that when a train sits on the tracks it automatically will throw a red light behind it and then at a greater distance, that red light will go yellow and then it will go green. That's essential for the safety of the passengers because when a train sits on a track and throws a red light behind it, there's also automatically a red cock that goes up on the side of the tracks that will trip any other train that's oncoming and cause it to put on the brakes. There are people that are hired to maintain equipment, the relays and so forth, and I was one of them.

How did you go from being an electrician to acting?

Actually, I worked midnight shifts from twelve to eight and since it was a maintenance job, it wasn't very demanding in terms of taking my energy. A lot of the time after we'd take care of our equipment, we'd just sit around and mope and sleep a little bit. Which left me a great deal of time during the day that I was full of energy. At nineteen, I met a girl who happened to be a secretary in an acting school, and she suggested that I take an audition for the acting school and see if I could get in. I said well I'll get in only if they want me. I'll go only if they want me. If I can get a scholarship, I'll go. And so I took the audition and I got in.

What training did you have or was that the school that you just mentioned?

The teacher I had was a lady by the name of Stella Adler, who was a very prominent teacher later on. She was my teacher until I went into the Army.

That's World War Two?


Can you tell me about that? Did you sign up? Did you get drafted?

I was drafted. Although I had an equity card, a union card in the acting profession, I told them that I was an electrician. They put me into the (U.S. Army) Signal Corps and I got into radar maintenance. I was sent down to radar school in Fort Monroe, Virginia. There I went from one machine to another. I was about to go to the war theatre and suddenly the machine that I had trained on was obsolete and I had to learn a new machine! That went on over and over and over again, until I had the required points to be discharged. When you're in the Army a certain amount of time, you can then be discharged. I was in three and a half years, and then it was time for me to be discharged.

I hear you were fired from what would have been your Broadway debut in the production of Eve of St. Mark. What happened with that?

Correct. I was working in the subway when one of my teachers happened to be on the station and he called down to me. I was down on the tracks. He asked me if I'd like to do a Broadway show. I said sure. I went down and signed the contract and began to rehearse. I had to make a decision at that time as to whether or not to leave the subway -- which was a very good job, well paying at the time, and security -- or leave the subway and go into a precarious field. I wasn't sure whether the show would be a hit or not. I couldn't make up my mind so I kept going to work at midnight, and then at eight o'clock go home and have breakfast and then go to the theatre and start rehearsal at ten. After about ten days of that I became very tired. I was up almost constantly. I couldn't remember my lines. I remember Maxwell Anderson, the writer, came over and told me that since I couldn't decide, they had to make a decision for me and they let me go. Two months later they called me for a road company of the show, but I wasn't ready to leave the subway for that.

Do you remember what was your first television or movie acting role was?

I don't remember the first television show. The first movie acting role might have been On the Waterfront.

Let me just say that the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) lists your first film experience as an extra in The Naked City.

I was an extra! That's right. Right, that's correct.

How did you end up with that gig?

I just went down there and they had called for extras and they picked me. I also had an extra job in a film called A Double Life with Ronald Colman. I was in the crowd down in -- I think it was Chinatown, I'm not sure where it was -- but there was a big crowd. Ronald Colman was walking through the crowd. He had a lapse of memory as it seems. As he came by me, I thought, "My God that's Ronald Colman and he's going right past me, and he's gonna pass me, and it will be history, and nobody would even know about it, and nobody will see me, there's so many people!" As he passed by me somehow my foot went out, and his head was up in the air. He didn't see me, he didn't see the foot, and he tripped! The director called cut and they did the scene over again, and by that time he didn't take the same route. He wasn't near me. Years later -- I had asked Garson Kanin, he was the director -- I asked him why he cut that? Because I thought it was more interesting, that the guy fell down. He said: "No, I couldn't use that, because the guy that was right near him bent down to pick him up, and that was not New York". Well I bent down to pick him up, I thought I continued the action but it turned out to be the wrong thing to do. Anyway, the moment was gone and it was on the cutting room floor and I didn't make it into the movie.

Let me move onto 1954. You were in the most important scene in one of the best movies ever made. You're the taxi cab driver in On The Waterfront when Marlon Brando said that he "could have been a contender." Did you remember that scene?

Yeah, sure.

Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront

Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront

Did you know it was going to be that great of a movie?

No I did not. I did not. As a matter of fact, my concentration was on the physical things. That was my very first, if not the first, one of the early movies I was in. I really was concentrating on the taxi, which was not a taxi but just a mockup, and the way the crew was standing around, shaking it and moving things in front of the lights to make it seem like the car is moving through traffic. I was concentrating on that. As a matter of fact, I had dinner with [Director Elia] Kazan a number of years after that. I asked him then, or he asked me: "Did you think that this was going to be one of the memorable scenes in the movie?" I said: "No, I didn't". He said he didn't think so either, but he was tired of shooting it over and over again. He said: "Ok, print it, let's move on."

Nehemiah Persoff in On The Waterfront

Nehemiah Persoff in On The Waterfront

Do you remember working with Marlon Brando? Did you have a choice to talk with him any?

Not during the shooting of it, but I knew him. I was very good friends with his sister, Jocelyn. Often I'd be at her house, and he'd be there, so I knew him from there.

Can you tell us what he was like?

Very playful! Always on, always doing tricks, always either beating drums, or doing African dances, or playing practical tricks. He was constantly active, a very attractive young man.

You also played a character named Leo in The Harder They Fall with Humphrey Bogart. Can you tell me about that part?

That's right. Well that was a very exciting part for me because it was really my first featured role. I was living on Sixty-Forth Street in New York on the side of Central Park. Do you know New York?


Well the hotel where we worked out of was on the other end of the park and I decided to walk to the location because I'd figured this was one of my farewell moments to the city. That I'd be leaving it soon. I had a feeling I was. So I walked through New York, looking at the buildings, sort of saying goodbye and finally I entered the Savoy Hotel and so the crew, all of these Hollywood tanned people wearing Hollywood clothes and everybody was so happy and smiling. I walked into a different world. Then the assistant director called and said it was raining outside and that everybody was dismissed until they'd be called. Well, a group of us New York actors went up to Rod Steiger's suite. He had a tremendous suite which was quite a shock for us, room after room after room. We ordered food, it was on the house, we ordered steaks, and we just over ate and over drank. Finally at about two or three o'clock, they called and said that the rain had let up. We went down Eighth Avenue. I was told to get into a car. I got in and there was somebody was sitting there, I didn't see who it was until I heard him say something. I turned around and looked at him and it was Humphrey Bogart.

Nehemiah Persoff and Humphrey Bogart in The Harder They Fall

Nehemiah Persoff and Humphrey Bogart in The Harder They Fall

Oh my, were you intimidated?

Oh, yes. (laughs) I tried to make believe that it didn't affect me at all, but I was very excited to be sitting there. Then the car had drove up to the curb and I walked into the house, as was I supposed to do, and he came up behind me. Then we went upstairs and he introduced himself, after we were off camera. It was very exciting, because it was my introduction to Hollywood film. It was one of the last glamorous films at the time, really high budget. We shot in New York a few days and then Chicago. In Chicago also it rained so we were in a room together with Max Baer, who was the ex-heavyweight champion, and Jersey Joe Walcott, who was also an ex-heavyweight champion. A whole bunch of fighters, it was a film about prize fighting. We shot there and just shooting the breeze, drinking and having a good time. I was in a different world all of a sudden. And then from there, we went to Hollywood. A very exciting time, it was the first experience with Hollywood and it was, of course, very new to me.

It sounded like you really jumped in.

I did, yeah.

You played Little Bonaparte in Some Like It Hot. Did you meet or get to work with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon or Marilyn Monroe?

I knew Tony Curtis from school. I went to the dramatic workshop with him [when his name was] Bernie Schwartz. I also knew the other actor, Jack Lemmon, from New York. I didn't know Marilyn Monroe, but then the scene that I was in did not include Marilyn Monroe. I had met her at several parties at Lee Strasberg's but I didn't meet her when we were shooting Some Like It Hot.

You worked with Alfred Hitchcock on his series. What was he like as a director?

He was umm... He had special people that he liked and special people that he ignored. I was one that he ignored and I didn't like that. I was in his series, but he apparently liked me, because I was hired twice in his series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and he also hired me for The Wrong Man, a film with Henry Fonda in which he directed.

You've appeared in many, many other movies. You've played mafia types in Al Capone, as well as Dr. Van Helsing in Dracula. What was your favorite movie?

Oh it's hard to say. I think one of the movies... of course They Harder They Fall, because it was the first. Then I think I enjoyed a film called This Angry Age which we shot in Thailand and Rome, Italy. It had an international cast; Silvana Mangano, and Tony Curtis, Jo Van Fleet, Richard Conte, Alida Valli. That was a very exciting film for me. Unfortunately the film was not a big hit, so it wasn't seen much. But I enjoyed doing that because it was the first time that I traveled to do a film. That was exciting.

Nehemiah Persoff and Rod Steiger in Al Capone

Nehemiah Persoff and Rod Steiger in Al Capone

You've said that you chose acting as a profession because the rise of anti-semiticism in Europe compelled you to prove yourself worthy of your gift of life. Why is that?

Yeah. Well, growing up as a kid and being of a race and religion that was singled out to be wiped out, made me think a great deal as to whether I was worthy of this life. The only conclusion I've come to is that I had to make a contribution. I had to make a contribution to prove myself worthy of this gift of life. That's what I meant by that.

You've said that if you're playing a good guy, you would try to show that he had some bad in him. That if you're playing a bad guy, you would show him some dignity and love. Can you explain the thought process behind that?

Well, we're all rounded people. We're not all either good or bad. Each of us has nobility in him, and each of us has the animal in him. I think that if you're going to be an actor and portray somebody honestly and truthfully, you try to get a well rounded portrayal and not just to portray the guy as being good or bad, because none of us are good or bad, we're all a mixture. We all have God and the Devil pulling at us on both ends.

I agree completely. Switching to television, early in your career you did a lot of Playhouse 90, The United States Steel Hour and Kraft Television Theatre. Is this where most of the TV actors were working at or starting with?

Right. My generation was very lucky in that respect, in that when television first came in, the requirements were that you had to be liked by the camera to begin with. On the other hand you had to have the facility of doing a play from the beginning to end. In other words, you had to be able to do a Broadway show but at the same time you have to have the qualities that make you a movie actor, a television actor. So there was a group of us that sort of fit into that and we were used constantly. We were sort of a repertory group; me, Martin Balsam, Leslie Nielsen, Phil Abbott, James Gregory, and a number of others, I don't remember their names. We were constantly working; we were all working all the time. We were very fortunate in that. It wasn't like today when you're doing -- not live TV, I'm talking about live TV -- when you're doing movie TV, you can just take a guy who is not an accomplished actor, put him in front of the camera, and if you shoot enough takes, you can eventually get a good performance out of him. At that time because time was of the essence, time was money, they had to keep coming to this group of actors who were able to sustain a show, and at the same time knew the camera, and at the same time add facial qualities that the camera liked.

I understand. I have to confess to you that my favorite performance of yours was in a episode of Gilligan's Island,,,

Oh yeah, that was fun. (laughs)

...where you played a dictator. You were the President of the Republic of Ecuador, Poncho Hernando Gonzalez Enrico Rodriguez. To be honest, I cracked up every time you said your name. As a villain, it was of course a little scary whenever you waved the gun around, but it was so silly to see you play against Bob Denver. Do you remember that? What was that like working with Bob?

Oh, sure. Oh, it was a ball, it was a lot of fun. Everybody, the crew, the rest of the cast, the director Jack Arnold, we all had a great time. It was a great relief for me, because it was so different than from anything I had been doing at that time. It was high comedy.

When you read the script, how did you on playing the character? Was it more silly slapstick?

Just what you saw, I made it up as I went along.

Did you know that the creator of the show, Sherwood Schwartz, said it was his favorite episode?

Yeah, he told me.

Are there any stories you remember about shooting that? That you care to share?

Just that it was a constant joy. That's the word for it.

You've been on an extensive line-up of television including Gunsmoke, Mission Impossible, The Six Million Dollar Man, Wonder Woman, Quincy, Charlie's Angels, Little House on the Prairie, on, on, on. How did you get so many parts? Are you a good actor or do you have a good agent?

The agent doesn't have much to do with it. (laughs) The way it works is that, at least it worked this way when I was there, it was something called a Q rating. There was a company in New York that sort of did inquiries on the actors. When a director decided on a certain actor he'd throw the name up to the producer and the producer would check with New York to see what the Q rating of the actor is. If the actor's Q rating was high, which meant that the public liked him, then the producer would say, great he gets an ok from the Q people. That's the way it works. It didn't have anything to do with an agent; it has to do with whether your name evoked a favorable response from the people who do the Q rating.

You were in several of Glen Larson's television series, did you meet him?

No. Which ones did he do?

He did Six Million Dollar Man, Battlestar Galactica...

No, I never met him.

Nehemiah Persoff as Eastern Alliance Leader in Battlestar Galactica

Nehemiah Persoff as Eastern Alliance Leader in Battlestar Galactica

In 1979, you were in the show Battlestar Galactica where you played the part of the Eastern Alliance Leader in the episode, "Experiment in Terra". Do you remember that?

The only thing I remember was that... what was his name that was the star? Greene. Lorne Greene, yes. We were friends from the New York days and we remained friends long after that when he was doing the cowboys, the westerns.


Ponderosa. That's all that I remember about that.

You said you knew Lorne Greene? Can you think of any stories or anecdotes about him?

I knew him, yes. Well, just that we had done quite a few shows in New York during the live (television) days. And then later, when he became very big, we used to go... be invited to his house on Mandeville Canyon a great deal. He and his wife were very gracious, Nancy Greene. They were gracious hosts. At one time we met the scientist Teller -- Edward Teller I think his name was -- at his house. It was a very pleasant relationship but it had nothing to do with the business, with acting.

Nehemiah Persoff as Eastern Alliance Leader in Battlestar Galactica

Nehemiah Persoff as Eastern Alliance Leader in Battlestar Galactica

I understand. In that episode, you worked with director Rod Holcomb. Have you worked on any other shows, are you familiar with him?


Do you remember the last time that you've seen the episode, "Experiment in Terra"?

I've never seen it.

Okay, just another week of work?

I might have seen it early, right after I did it, but I don't remember that episode at all. I remember there was a table there. I remember it when you sent the picture in the email.

I sent you a picture of you appearing in the black uniform.

Yeah, I remember that, but I don't know what it was about or anything like that. The thing I remember most about it is that at the end of the show, I liked the boots I was wearing. They were brand new and they gave them to me.

Nehemiah Persoff as Eastern Alliance Leader in Battlestar Galactica

Nehemiah Persoff as Eastern Alliance Leader in Battlestar Galactica

Oh, is that right?

I had them for a number of years and then my son inherited them.

I understand due to medical problems you've slowed down in Hollywood?

Yeah, I've retired now.

Have you been doing any acting at all now?

No. I really have not since 1993, I think.

You most recently did voice work for three An American Tail cartoons. How was the switch to voice work?


How was the switch?Was it easier just doing the voice work?

Oh yeah, very easy and undemanding. Easy.

When you do the voice work, do they show the cartoon and you try to fit your voice with the character?

I think there are different companies that do it differently. In this particular one, the Fievel series, I did the voice without any picture at all up there. Then I think they went on to use the picture to do the voice. I think their starting point was the voice.

I understand that you're doing some painting now.

Yes. I'm not doing it anymore, I quit about six months ago. I don't have the energy to continue, I have back trouble. I have about 150, maybe 200, paintings that I had done, but that's it.

Do you have a web site where we can see these?


They're available for sale?


Nehemiah Persoff

Nehemiah Persoff

I'm sure the fans will want to check that out. Since you've stopped painting, do you have any other hobbies?

Ah, nope. No, I hope to go back to painting if I get better, but I don't know. We'll see, I'm not a youngster.

Is there anything else that you'd like to talk about or tell fans of you?

Um, that growing old is not as bad as it's cracked up to be.

Mr. Persoff, I want to thank you again for taking the time for this interview.

My pleasure.

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