11 Best Performances by Non-Jewish Actors Playing Jews in the Movies

Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio Inspire Our List

Kafkaesque Performance: Anthony Perkins on the set of ‘The Trial’ with Jeanne Moreau and director Orson Welles.
AP Photo
Kafkaesque Performance: Anthony Perkins on the set of ‘The Trial’ with Jeanne Moreau and director Orson Welles.

By Adam Langer

Published February 20, 2014.
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2. Anthony Perkins as Josef K. in “The Trial” (1962)
Perkins’s signature herky-jerky, nervous shtick had a hit-or-miss quality to it. He will be forever etched into moviegoers’ minds as the archetypal creep in “Psycho.” But he is remembered less fondly — if at all — for his impersonation of troubled ballplayer Jimmy Piersall in “Fear Strikes Out.” To our mind, his starring role as Franz Kafka’s persecuted hero in Orson Welles’s classic represents the pinnacle of his career.


3. Dominique Sanda as Micòl Finzi-Contini in “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” (1970)
Vittorio De Sica’s classic is, to our minds, one of the most beautifully made and understated films about the Holocaust. It is anchored by a slew of terrific performances, most notably Sanda’s.


4. Louis de Funès as Victor Pivert in “The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob” (1973)
Well, he wasn’t playing a Jew as much as he was playing a bigot pretending to be a rabbi. Even so, the improbable international success of this insane caper was largely due to de Funès’s manic performance in the title role.


5. Graham Chapman as Brian Cohen in “Life of Brian” (1979)
Brian Cohen may not have made for a convincing savior, but Chapman’s understated turn as “the man who wouldn’t be Christ” elevated this Monty Python film to classic status. Clearly, the front-runner as chosen by the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea.


6. Roberto Benigni as Guido Orefice in “Life is Beautiful” (1997)
A morally dubious and saccharine misappropriation of the Holocaust? Well, maybe, even though the story did have roots in Benigni’s family story. Still, Benigni’s portrayal of a Jewish bookstore owner is a comic tour de force. And even if it wasn’t, we’d still include it for the Italian actor-director’s walk to the stage to collect the Best Actor statuette during the Academy Awards, which ranks among the most entertaining moments in Oscar history.


7. Thora Birch as Enid Coleslaw in “Ghost World” (2001)
Scarlett Johansson may have been the actress who became a star after Terry Zwigoff’s adaptation of Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel. But Birch’s endearingly dour take on Coleslaw (whose name is an anagram for Daniel Clowes) made this one of the best comedies of the early 21st century. Oh, and for the purposes of our discussion, we’re going to include this one despite the reports that one of Birch’s grandparents was apparently Jewish.


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