Monday, March 16, 2009
Ron Silver, R.I.P.
I just read of the death of actor and activist Ron Silver this morning, after a long battle with esophageal cancer. He was 62.
In an eerie coincidence, the Lovely Companion and I just started watching/re-watching the third season of The West Wing last night (I'd seen it before, she was watching for the first time), where Silver began his four-year recurring role as political consultant Bruno Gianelli. He's great fun in the part: his acid cynicism acts as an intriguing counterpoint to the show's idealistic vision of government, and his off-kilter line reading (he rolls words off his tongue as if auditioning for the role of Satan in The Devil And Daniel Webster, and I mean that as a compliment) contrasts nicely with the more full-throated performances of his colleagues. Bruno stands out in appearance (he's the only character with a goatee, and he has a dead-on gaze and hypnotic stillness amidst all that walk-and-talk), but beneath his calculation he's really no less of a romantic about government than anyone else-- he's just willing to reach his goals by other means. In that sense, he's The West Wing's version of Sam Donovan, the unpredictable ratings guru William H. Macy played on Aaron Sorkin's first show, Sports Night; what both characters do is to prick the bubble of smugness the show's characters sometimes live within, forcing them-- and by extension the audience-- to rethink their own biases of style and viewpoint. Beneath an often off-putting exterior is a grace, wit and sometime terrifying humanity-- you just have to be willing to let yourself see it.
Letting us see it was what Silver did for much of his acting career. He was born in 1946 in New York-- his mother was a substitute teacher and his father a clothing executive. After studying Spanish and Chinese at SUNY Buffalo, Chinese history at St. John's and International Affairs at Columbia, he taught Spanish several years at Roosevelt High School in Connecticut. He worked for the government in Taiwan in the early 1970s, then started studying acting in the mid-70s. Guest appearances on shows like The Rockford Files, and McMillan & Wife led to a supporting role on Rhoda as the titular character's neighbor Sonny, and a later recurring role on The Stockard Channing Show in the late 70s (he would be reunited with Channing twice, on The West Wing, and in the TV movie Jack (2004), where he played a gay man coming out to his family).
Film and theater work quickly followed, in such productions as Silkwood, Ali and Enemies: A Love Story. He won a Tony for originating the part of Hollywood producer Charlie Fox in David Mamet's Speed-The-Plow in 1988, which lead to him taking on what I think is the role of his career: playing Alan Dershowitz in the film Reversal of Fortune.
My memories of Ron Silver as an actor are bound up in this movie. It was the first thing I ever saw him in, and the part of Dershowitz-- smart, quick-witted and crude, a bundle of nervous energy who treats both the courtroom and one-on-one basketball as contact sports-- seemed made for Silver's peculiar mixture of endless energy and canny calculation. He and Jeremy Irons' Claus Von Bulow make an intriguing team-- Silver is all high-pitched righteousness, Irons all low-key cynicism (like an even more decadent George Sanders). Dershowitz constantly tells himself he's taking Von Bulow's case for noble reasons (to pursue a more general legal principle, and to fund his pro bono work on the death penalty), but the film does a good job of suggesting the lawyer's broader career ambitions; "You're a very strange man," Dershowitz says to Von Bulow, but Silver's darting eyes and cheshire cat grin let us realize that Dershowitz is not unattracted to the wealth and publicity Von Bulow's world represents. Irons deservedly won the Oscar for his role, but he wouldn't be nearly as effective without the counterweight provided by Silver.
He'd never quite have that kind of role again, although he'd continue to work steadily until the end of his life, and writers like Sorkin would give him parts that at least hinted at his potential. It's a measure of Silver's talent and professionalism that he was so convincing as the liberal Gianelli at a moment when the actor's own politics were turning rightward-- that third season of The West Wing aired just after 9/11, a moment when lifelong Democrat Silver re-registered as an Independent and began making outspoken statements in favor of the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions. All of this lead to him speaking on President Bush's behalf at the 2004 Republican convention, and hosting a Sirius satellite radio show on public affairs in the last months before he passed away. The former government worker and languages teacher admitted, "By inclination I am more of a politician than I am an actor. I care more about public policy. I care more about pro-choice, the environment, homelessness, and nuclear issues than I do about any part."
Reading that list of issues, though, one begins to see that the label of "neo-con" that was attached by many to Silver's politics after 9/11 is a bit narrow. Indeed, Silver himself claimed to still be a "revolutionary liberal," and told David Frost, "I have said things that have angered both parties.... I am socially and economically still a Democrat and always was. If gay people want to get married, God bless them. I try to warn them that along with marriage comes divorce, but they don't listen to me, so good luck. On things like healthcare, I am to the left of most people...." In another interview with SkyTV just before the 2008 election, he expressed some cautious hope for Obama (while still enumerating their disagreements) and disappointment at McCain's pick of Sarah Palin as a running mate, stating forcefully that putting Palin a heartbeat from the presidency was an irresponsible act for a man with a history of melanoma. He also co-founded the Creative Coalition, an activist group of entertainment folk who worked on behalf of First Amendment rights and public education.
Some of these positions may seem contradictory, and I certainly don't agree with all of them. But Silver's gift seemed to be an ability to display and embody paradox, to suggest that every simple image has a complexity behind it, a series of often contradictory intensities. In bringing to bear upon those intensities his full concentration and power, he made American acting a much more interesting place. R.I.P., Ron Silver.