(written from a Production point of view)
Persoff has amassed a career consisting of well over 200 film and television appearances. Early in his career, he became well-known for playing villainous, tough guy roles such as mobsters and gangsters, such as those in the classic films The Wrong Man, Al Capone, and Some Like It Hot. Most notably, he had a recurring role as gangster Jake 'Greasy Thumb' Guzik on the Desilu series The Untouchables.
Since then, however, Persoff has become known for playing kinder, gentler roles. His most notable of such roles were a pair of "Papa" characters in two different films from the 1980s: Rabi Reb Mendel, Yentl's father, in the 1983 musical drama Yentl; and Papa Mouskewitz in the 1986 animated film An American Tail and its sequels.
Early life and career
Persoff was born in Jerusalem, Palestine (now Israel) and emigrated to American with his family in 1929. He won a won a scholarship to the Dramatic Workshop in New York, which led to his New York stage debut in a 1940 production of The Emperor's New Clothes. A veteran of World War II, Persoff served in the United States Army from 1942 to 1946 before being discharged as a Technician 5th Grade.
Following his military service, Persoff returned to his acting career, making his Broadway debut in Galileo in December 1947. Warren Stevens also performed in this production. The following year, Persoff appeared in his second Broadway play, Sundown Beach, again working with Warren Stevens.
Persoff worked with fellow Star Trek alumni in his next four Broadway plays: Ray Walston in a 1949 production of William Shakespeare's King Richard III; Stefan Gierasch in Montserrat, also in 1949; William Marshall in a revival of Peter Pan in 1950; and Sam Gilman and Arnold Moss in Shakespeare's King Lear from December 1950 through February 1951.
In 1954, Persoff worked with William Windom in the play Mademoiselle Colombe. Later that year, he acted with Georgann Johnson and David Opatoshu in Reclining Figure. Persoff was then part of the original cast of the Tony Award-nominated play Tiger at the Gates in 1956. His last Broadway production was Only in America in 1959.
Persoff made his film debut in the 1948 noir classic The Naked City. His second film role was the obscure cab driver during Marlon Brando's classic "I coulda been a contender" scene in 1954's On the Waterfront. Persoff made his first credited film appearance in 1956's The Harder They Fall.
He acted alongside Jay Robinson in the 1956 crime drama The Wild Party. That same year, Persoff was seen in Alfred Hitchcock's noir classic The Wrong Man, along with Charles Cooper. Persoff then co-starred with Phillip Pine and Scott Marlowe in the 1957 drama Men in War. In 1958's The Badlanders, Pursoff worked with Anthony Caruso.
Persoff played a mobster Johnny Torrio in the 1959 biopic Al Capone, which also starred James Gregory. Later that year, Persoff and Elisha Cook, Jr., appeared in the western Day of the Outlaw. In addition, Persoff played a gangster in the acclaimed 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot.
He co-starred in the 1961 western adventure The Comancheros, along with veteran Trek guest star Michael Ansara had a role in this film. Persoff and Ansara were also a part of the extensive ensemble cast of the 1965 biblical epic The Greatest Story Ever Told, as was Mark Lenard.
In the 1963 psychological war drama The Hook, Persoff worked alongside Robert Walker. Persoff's subsequent films during the 1960s included Fate Is the Hunter (1964), The Power (1968, with Celia Lovsky and Lawrence Montaigne), Panic in the City (1968, with John Hoyt), and The Money Jungle (1968, with Leslie Parrish).
Persoff has made over 200 television guest appearances since 1949. His most famous TV role is that of mobster Jake "Greasy Thumb" Guzik in three episodes of the popular CBS series The Untouchables, which, like Star Trek, was produced by Desilu. He made his first appearance as Guzik in 1959 and reprised the role in 1961 (in an episode with Joseph Ruskin) and 1962 (in an episode with Barry Russo and Malachi Throne). Persoff appeared in three other episodes of The Untouchables, playing a different character in each. One episode co-starred Madlyn Rhue; another co-starred Michael Strong.
Persoff has also guest-starred in multiple episodes of Gunsmoke (including one directed by Vincent McEveety, one with Anthony Zerbe, one with Robert DoQui), three episodes of The Wild Wild West (including one with Al Capone co-star James Gregory and another with Jeff Corey and Sabrina Scharf) and three episodes of Mission: Impossible. In his first episode of Mission: Impossible, "Odds of Evil," Persoff played a prince while Lawrence Montaigne played his aide. In his third episode, "Fool's Gold," Persoff worked with David Opatoshu. At that point, Star Trek: The Original Series star Leonard Nimoy was a regular on Mission: Impossible; Persoff previously worked with Nimoy on the western series Wagon Train.
Herschel Daugherty directed Persoff in a 1960 episode of Alfred Hitchock Presents and in a 1969 episode of Hawaii Five-O, a series Persoff returned to many times in the 1970s. In 1964, Persoff appeared with Jane Wyatt on Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre. The following year, Persoff guest-starred on For the People, the series William Shatner starred in before he joined Star Trek.
Other television series on which Persoff has appeared include Naked City (narrated by Lawrence Dobkin), Thriller (in an episode with Sam Gilman), Rawhide (two episodes, including one with William Schallert), Burke's Law (one episode, including one with Nancy Kovack), Ben Casey (with the aforementioned Michael Ansara), I Spy (two episodes, including one with Elisha Cook, Jr., The Big Valley (with John Hoyt and Rudy Solari), The Time Tunnel (starring Michael Ansara, Whit Bissell, James Darren, and Lee Meriwether), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (with the aforementioned Leslie Parrish), Land of the Giants (which starred Don Marshall), and The Mod Squad (starring Tige Andrews and Clarence Williams III).
Later life and career
Persoff continued making frequent appearances on television throughout the 1970s. Some of the series on which he guest-starred during this decade were The High Chaparral (which starred Henry Darrow), Adam-12 (with Peter Brocco), McCloud (starring Diana Muldaur), The Hit (with Marc Alaimo and Andrew Prine), Quincy, M.E. (directed by Corey Allen), and Fantasy Island (starring Ricardo Montalban). He also appeared in many episodes of the action/crime drama Hawaii Five-O, during which time he worked with fellow Trek performers James Darren, Mark Lenard, Amanda McBroom, Barry Russo, Malachi Throne, and Brian Tochi; Michael O'Herlihy directed two of Persoff's episodes.
Persoff was a regular on the short-lived 1978 Canadian soap opera High Hopes. Bruce Gray headlined the cast of this series, which also included Granville Van Dusen. In addition to his episodic TV credits, Persoff had supporting roles in a number of made-for-TV movies in the 1970s. In the 1974 suspense drama The Missiles of October, Persoff portrayed Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, while Keene Curtis, Paul Lambert, Byron Morrow, Stewart Moss, Kenneth Tobey, and Harris Yulin also had roles in this movie. That same year, Persoff and Madlyn Rhue were seen in the TV drama The Sex Symbol.
In 1975, Persoff worked with John Savage in the TV drama movie Eric. This movie was directed by James Goldstone, who had previously directed Persoff, John Colicos, and Gregory Sierra in the 1971 film Red Sky at Morning. Persoff's other feature film credits during this decade included the 1970 drama The People Next Door (with Stephen McHattie), the 1975 horror thriller Psychic Killer (with Whit Bissell), and, most notably, 1976's Voyage of the Damned (with Malcolm McDowell).
Persoff also played the second male lead in the 1977 independent science fiction film Deadly Harvest, in which he worked with Kim Cattrall. He and Cattrall later acted in the 1979 mini-series The Rebels, directed by Russ Mayberry and co-starring Paul Fix, Warren Stevens, and Kevin Tighe. Persoff's other mini-series include 1978's The Word, along with Kate Mulgrew, the aforementioned Diana Muldaur, Christopher Lloyd, Nicolas Coster, and Jonathan Banks, and The French Atlantic Affair, co-starring Bruce French, Harvey Jason, Lance LeGault, William Lucking, Michelle Phillips, John Rubinstein, and Gwen Van Dam.
1980s and 1990s
Although he was known for "tough guy" roles during the 1950s and 1960s, Persoff has more recently become known for more light-hearted characters. His best-known film role is that of Yentl's "Papa" in the 1983 musical drama Yentl. He is also known for voicing Papa Mousekewitz in the 1986 animated film An American Tail, its 1991 sequel An American Tail: Feivel Goes West, and two direct-to-video sequels in which Thomas Dekker voiced Papa's son, Feivel. Christopher Plummer voiced Henri the pigeon in the first American Tail, while Rene Auberjonois, Tony Jay, John Kassir, and Ron Perlman voiced characters in the 1998 video sequel An American Tail: The Treasure of Manhattan Island.
In the 1980 TV movie The Henderson Monster, Persoff worked alongside Stephen Collins and David Spielberg. Persoff's subsequent TV movies include 1980's Condominium (with Harry Townes and Bill Zuckert) and 1983's Sadat (starring John Rhys-Davies).
Due to declining health and high blood pressure, Persoff was forced to limit his acting work in the mid-1980s. To compensate for his decreased acting workload, Persoff took up painting as a hobby in 1985. He did continue making occasional film and television appearances, however. He appeared as a Rabbi in Martin Scorsese's acclaimed, controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ and played a supporting role in the hit 1988 comedy film Twins. The latter project also featured the aforementioned Tony Jay as well as Robert Harper, Tom McCleister, Dendrie Taylor, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.
In addition, Persoff made guest appearances on such television series as Magnum, P.I. (in an episode with France Nuyen and directed by Leo Penn), L.A. Law (starring Corbin Bernsen and Larry Drake, in an episode directed by David Carson and co-starring Diana Muldaur and Natalia Nogulich), Murder, She Wrote (with James Sloyan), Doogie Howser, M.D. (on which Lawrence Pressman and James B. Sikking were regulars), and Law & Order starring Paul Sorvino in the Holocaust-themed "Night & Fog". Persoff has since retired from acting entirely, instead devoting himself to his painting. Specializing in watercolor, he has created many works of art, many of which have been exhibited in California.