The Secret Behind Nehemiah Persoff’s Vivid Portrayal of a Twilight Zone Villain
So few of the original Twilight Zone stars are still with us. Just a handful, really, if you don’t count ones who were children when they appeared on the show. So when one of them dies, it can feel like we’ve lost a close friend or family member.
Such was the case when the news broke that Nehemiah Persoff had passed away at 102. A gifted and prolific performer, he played a memorable villain early in the Zone‘s first season.
An amnesiac who spends most of “Judgment Night” trying to figure out who he is and why he has a premonition of doom, U-boat Capt. Carl Lanser may not be as hateful as SS Capt. Gunther Lutze in Season 3’s “Deaths-Head Revisited,” but his eternal “reward” is no less harsh. It turns out (spoiler alert!) that he is constantly reliving the night he ordered the destruction of a WW2-era ship loaded with civilians — this time as a passenger on the ill-fated vessel himself.
I have yet to do a deep dive on “Judgment Night.” That will come, but my goal today is more modest: to share a tribute to Persoff published in The Washington Post. Most of the Post‘s content is behind a pay wall, but it’s my understanding that this article is free to all. Even if you can’t read it all, though, I just want to spotlight a couple of points in it, which I’ll quote here.
One concerns how busy an actor Persoff was — which, when you consider how fully developed his portrayals always were, is even more impressive. As the Post notes, “His TV career was so prodigious in the 1950s and ’60s that he frequently raced between sets for episodes of such shows as ‘Rawhide,’ ‘Route 66’ and ‘The United States Steel Hour’ — switching wardrobes, hairpieces, prosthetic features, mannerisms and accents at a frantic pace.”
Moreover, his career was quite long. He was one of those actors who managed to stay active practically non-stop for decades. He was all over TV and movies. And not just any movies, but legendary ones like “On the Waterfront” and “Some Like It Hot.” Younger viewers who haven’t seen those classics may recall seeing him as a scientist in the Arnold Schwarzenegger-Danny DeVito comedy “Twins” or hearing him voice the mouse patriarch in “An American Tail.” His résumé goes on and on.
Another Post quote I enjoyed comes from a TV critic who praised his turn as Spanish guerrilla Pablo in a 1959 production of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” for Playhouse 90: “He caught magnificently the minglement of barbarity and civilization, butcher and shattered hero.” Anyone who’s seen “Judgment Night” can attest to Persoff’s ability to play such complex characters.
His success can be traced at least in part to a healthy mix of talent and self-confidence. Speaking of a late-life interest in watercolors, he told an interviewer: “When I got a role, I set my sights on being able to get under the skin of the character. It’s the same with painting. When you sit in front of a blank canvas, there is a feeling of ‘I can’t do it’ for many painters. But because of my acting experience, I always felt that I could do it, and I did.”
But it was the concluding two paragraphs of the Post article that impressed me the most:
Reflecting on his prolific career, he told author Darryl Lyman for the book ‘Great Jews in the Performing Arts’ that he saw his work ethic as a rebuke to Adolf Hitler and the antisemitism that persisted long after the Nazi dictator’s defeat.
“I suspect that one of the most powerful forces shaping my life when I was growing up in the U.S.A. was that German with the small mustache who questioned the right of my people — and therefore me — to live,” he said. “I was then determined to develop whatever talent I had to prove worthy of the gift of life.”
Mission accomplished, Mr. Persoff. May his memory be a blessing.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!