Actor Nehemiah Persoff paints himself a second career

The craft of acting is frequently likened to the craft of art. Actors' portrayals are often described as character sketches — whether they're broad-stroke caricatures or finely detailed, fully fleshed-out portraits.

So is it any wonder that actor Nehemiah Persoff — who could fill several galleries with the hundreds of characters he's limned on stage, screen, and television — should take up watercolor painting?

Bay Area audiences have seen the 76-year-old actor on the stage in "I'm Not Rappaport," "Sholem Aleichem," and "Two." They've heard him as the voice as Papa Mousekowitz in Steven Spielberg's "Fievel" films. And they've watched him in more than 400 TV shows, including "Gunsmoke," as well as in such films as "Yentl," "On the Waterfront, " "The Harder They Fall" and "Some Like It Hot."

Now, Bay Area art appreciators will have the opportunity to become familiar with Persoff's painting talent. His first local exhibition opens Sunday, Oct. 22 at Alef Bet Judaica Gallery in Los Gatos. Although seven of his seascapes and landscapes are already on display at the 1,500-square foot gallery and store, the actor-painter will supply 10 more works for the official opening of the show, which will run at least through Chanukah. Persoff also promises to attend the 3:30 to 7 p.m. opening reception.

Nurit Sabadosh, the owner of Alef Bet, was introduced to Persoff's paintings by his art teacher, Jacque Brackett. An occasional visitor to the store, Brackett noticed there were other artists' works on display, and while chatting with Sabadosh, told her about Persoff's paintings. On a later visit she brought slides of the actor's work, which impressed Sabadosh for their "nice combination of pastel colors, whether they show an Arizona sunset, a stormy ocean, or a peaceful beach," she said.

Persoff, who moved from his native Jerusalem to New York at the age of 9, first took up his watercolor brush five years ago, after he moved from Los Angeles to Cambria. His move to the coastal town six miles south of San Simeon was on doctor's orders. After watching him perform in a one-man show in San Diego, the doctor took Persoff's blood pressure backstage after the performance. He told the actor to slow down and relax.

"So I decided I would rather cut short the run of the show than cut short the run of my life," Persoff said during a phone interview from Cambria. Soon after he moved there, he met artist Art van Rhyn, who invited him to spend a day in nature with a group of watercolor artists.

Persoff was no stranger to art. He had studied sketching in 1985 in Los Angeles, and as a young struggling actor, he had posed for painters who worked out of studios in the Janice building near Manhattan's Union Square. And of course as a stage actor he had spent a lot of time around set designers, many of whom are accomplished artists.

But Persoff had never been inspired to try watercolor painting until he saw members of van Rhyn's group turn out two or three paintings apiece before lunch. "They were beautiful," he commented. "All these different impressions of the same site."

In the ensuing five years, Persoff has created almost 100 paintings, selling around 20. His art has been displayed in several shows in Cambria, as well as in exhibitions in Paso Robles and Morro Bay. He has also been talking with San Francisco gallery owners who have expressed interest in mounting his work.

Although he has not experienced any direct correlation between the craft he uses as an actor and the one he employs as a painter, Persoff says he tries to give as much depth and complexity to his artistic subjects as he does to the stage and screen characters he portrays.

"If I'm playing a good guy, I'll try to show that he has some bad in him," Persoff said. "And if I'm playing a bad guy, I'll give him some dignity and love. I bring that same intention to my painting. If I'm painting an ocean in turmoil, I'll try to give the painting some measure of serenity."

Persoff credits his painting teacher with helping him to strengthen his basic technique, identify the narrative properties of colors, and develop a feeling of freedom and relaxation when he paints. Reached at her Cambria home, instructor Brackett praised what she called "the slant of happiness" in Persoff's paintings and said the "sense of joy" Persoff imparts to his subjects is his greatest strength as an artist. "It's funny that a man who has played so many villains has such a pure joy of heart," she observed.

One joyful result of Persoff's new career is the salutary effect it has had on his health: His blood pressure is now 130 over 80. But he said it has had another effect on his life as well. It has, figuratively, given him new eyes with which to see the world.

"Despite the fact that I've been an actor for more than 50 years, I'd never really looked at nature," Persoff confessed. "But now I see the light dancing on the trees, the light on the water and the rocks. Everything in life has taken on a completely different look."