Nehemiah Persoff, who played the cab driver in Marlon Brando’s and Rod Steiger’s immortal, “I coulda’ been a contender” scene in “On The Waterfront” (1954), Mr. Dino in a 1965 episode of Gunsmoke, Barbra Streisand’s “Papa,” Reb Mendel, in Yentl (1983), and dozens of other roles, died on Tuesday of heart failure at age 102 at a rehabilitation facility in San Luis Obispo, California.
Persoff was born in Jerusalem in 1919, and at age 10 moved with his family to the United States in 1929, where he graduated from the Hebrew Technical Institute in 1937. He was drafted in 1942 and served through World War II until 1945 as part of an acting company that entertained the troops around the world.
After the war ended, Persoff was accepted into the Actors Studio in 1947 and took an acting class that was taught by Elia Kazan.
After playing a smiling man on the subway in “The Naked City” in 1948, and Brando’s cabbie in 1954, Persoff played Leo the accountant in “The Harder They Fall” with Humphrey Bogart and Rod Steiger (1956), the gangster boss Little Bonaparte in Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot” (1959). He also appeared in supporting roles in “The Comancheros” (1961) and “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965), in Twins (1988), and was the voice of Papa Mousekewitz in the animated movie series “American Tail.” His last movie was “4 Faces” (1999).
Persoff’s numerous TV appearances include Five Fingers (“The Moment of Truth”), The Big Valley (“Legend of a General”, Parts I & II, episode), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“Heart of Gold” episode), The Twilight Zone (“Judgment Night”), The Untouchables (six episodes, including three episodes as Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik, Naked City, Route 66 (two episodes), Seaway (“Last Voyage” episode, 1965), The Legend of Jesse James, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Gunsmoke, Columbo (“Now You See Him…”), Gilligan’s Island, The Wild Wild West, The High Chaparral (“Fiesta” episode, 1970), Hawaii Five-O (seven episodes), Cannon, Ellery Queen (“The Adventure of the Pharaoh’s Curse” episode), Mission: Impossible (three episodes), Adam-12 (“Vendetta” episode), The Mod Squad, Barney Miller (three episodes), and Star Trek: The Next Generation, (“The Most Toys” 1990). He appeared as the Eastern Alliance Leader in the Battlestar Galactica episode, “Experiment in Terra” (1979).
Persoff retired from acting in 1999 and pursued painting, mostly watercolors. His wife of 70 years, Thia, died of cancer in 2021. They had four children.