Happy 100th to a familiar, often villainous, face

Nehemiah Persoff in Mission: Impossible

Aug. 2 is the 100th birthday for Nehemiah Persoff, a character actor who excelled at playing villains.

Persoff, over a career lasting from the late 1940s to the early 2000s, played:

–A Blofeld-like villain in the 1961 John Wayne Western The Comancheros;

–A secondary Thrush villain out to kill his former mentor Mandor (Jack Lord) in The Master’s Touch Affair in the final season of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.;

–Three episodes of The Wild Wild West, including the show’s 1965 pilot;

–Two episodes of I Spy, three episodes of Mission: Impossible, an episode of It Takes a Thief, and seven episodes of Hawaii Five-O.

Persoff could play heavies in comedies as well as dramas.

For example, Persoff played gangster Little Bonaparte in 1959’s Some Like It Hot. The mobster was hearing impaired, wearing hearing aids. Little Bonaparte has fellow gangster Spats Columbo (George Raft) and his men gunned down at a party, with the killer coming out of a large cake.

A lawman played by Pat O’Brien enters asking what happened.

“There was something in that cake that didn’t agree with them,” Little Bonaparte replies.

1961: John Wayne’s 007 movie

The Comancheros poster

The Comancheros poster

There’s an old saying to the effect there hasn’t been an original plot since the ancient Greeks.

Well, you can believe it if you’ve ever seen the 1961 John Wayne western film The Comancheros.

The cast of the movie includes  Nehemiah Persoff as a wheelchair-bound criminal mastermind who has struck an alliance with Indians to cause a lot of havoc.

What’s more, the villain describes what he has built over 30 years as a business and a “society.”

“We have a society here, a society that’s different from anything visualized by people anywhere in the world,” Persoff’s character says. “The rules of this society are magnificently simple — transgress and you die…We as a society of thieves cannot tolerate stealing from each other.”

To get his point across, Persoff’s villain points to a poor wretch hanging by his wrists. “He stole.”

Now it’s not a stretch to see similarities with Thunderball (1965), where we witness a SPECTRE board meeting after the main titles. Ernst Stavro Blofeld executives a SPECTRE official who has embezzled from the criminal organization.

What’s more, there are scenes in The Comancheros where heroes John Wayne and Stuart Whitman have drinks and later dinner with Persoff’s villain.

They’re remarkably similar to scenes in 007 films where James Bond makes nice with his adversary, each trying to get a measure of the other. In The Comancheros, there’s even a sacrificial lamb played by Patrick Wayne, the Duke’s son, and an oversized henchman who has to be dealt with.

Finally, The Comancheros has an action-packed finale as the Texas Rangers come to rescue, not unlike Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker.

Still, The Comancheros runs less than 100 minutes. The climax is a lot leaner than what you see in 21st century movies which run well over two hours.

Today, The Comancheros is best remembered as the final film for director Michael Curtiz, who earlier directed Casablanca. It’s also the first teaming of star John Wayne and composer Elmer Bernstein. From 1961 onward, Bernstein worked on a number of the Duke’s movies, including Wayne’s finale, 1976’s The Shootist.

If you go to YouTube, there’s a version of The Comancheros where the image is small (presumably the poster believed this would avoid avoid reaction from “the copyright police”). There’s another YouTube video with a sampling of Bernstein’s wonderful score.