Ron Silver, Intense Tony Winner for Speed-the-Plow, Dies at 62

By Robert Simonson
15 Mar 2009

Ron Silver
Ron Silver

Ron Silver, an intense, versatile actor who won a Tony Award for his portrayal of an anxious film producer about to close a big deal in the original Broadway run of David Mamet's Hollywood satire, Speed-the-Plow, died March 15. The cause was esophageal cancer, according to the New York Post. He was 62.

In 1988's Speed-the-Plow, the pinnacle of Mr. Silver's stage career, he was Charlie Fox, a volatile would-be Tinseltown player who pillories and physically knocks down studio head Joe Mantegna when he sees his big chance at becoming an above-the-title producer slipping through his fingers. Critics praised Mr. Silver's vibrant, volcanic performance, and he took home the Tony and Drama Desks Awards for Best Actor that season.

"Mr. Silver gives the performance of his career," wrote Frank Rich in The New York Times. "While one expects this actor to capture Charlie's cigar-chomping vulgarity, Mr. Silver's frightening eruptions of snarling anger and crumpled demeanor in the face of defeat make what could be another Beverly Hills caricature into a figure of pathos."

The acting triumph led to the most vital period of Mr. Silver's film career. He was a tortured Jewish-American immigrant trying to decide between three women in Paul Mazursky's "Enemies: A Love Story" in 1989, a psychopath menacing Jamie Lee Curtis' cop in 1990's "Blue Steel," and lawyer Alan Dershowitz, trying to defend the indefensible Claus von Bulow in 1991's "Reversal of Fortune."

Mr. Silver never returned to Broadway after winning the Tony, but there were two highly publicized near misses. In 1991, he was cast as the original lead in La Bete, David Hirson's stylized verse play about an internecine war within a 17th-century French acting company, but the actor departed while the play was out of town, and was replaced by Tom McGowan. Two years later, he was set to star in Arthur Miller's period drama about guilt and marriage, Broken Glass, only to leave the show during a production at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT, and be replaced by David Duke, who played the part on Broadway.



Ron Silver was born in New York City on July 2, 1946, the son of a Lower East Side clothing salesman and a schoolteacher. He graduated from New York State in Buffalo with a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish and Chinese studies. He also took a Master's Degree in Chinese History from St. John's University in New York and the College of Chinese Culture in Taiwan, and attended Columbia University's Graduate School of International Affairs. He put his degrees to work. For several years in the 1960s, he taught Spanish at Roosevelt High School, a Jewish boarding school in Connecticut, and got a job with the U.S. government and traveled to Taiwan in the early 1970s. An early career goal was to be a China expert for the Central Intelligence Agency.

He began his acting career in the early '70s with stage appearances in Kaspar and Public Insult at City Center and El Grande de Coca-Cola at the Mercer Arts Center. At the New York Shakespeare Festival, he acted in Lotta, More Than You Deserve and The Emperor of Late Night Radio. He made his film debut in "Tunnel Vision" in 1976, and, after a move to Los Angeles, took West Coast stage roles in Awake and Sing! and In the Boom Boom Room.

Clean-shaven in his early days, with intelligent, watchful eyes and dark, taut looks, he worked heavily in television, acting in "Rhoda," "Macmillan & Wife," "The Rockford Files" and "The Stockard Channing Show." In the early '80s, films such as "Silkwood," "Best Friends," "Lovesick" and "Oh, God! You Devil" came along.

Having grown dissatisfied with his progress in Hollywood, he returned to New York in 1984 and made his Broadway debut in David Rabe's tale of Hollywood's unsavory underbelly, Hurlyburly, playing the mocking, patronizing, self-satisfied Mickey. He then starred in the short-lived Broadway comedy Social Security, and Hunting Cockroaches at Manhattan Theatre Club Off-Broadway.

He experienced another rush of television activity in the 1990s, by which time he sported a beard and a mane of brown hair. He took long-running roles in the series "Chicago Hope," "Veronica's Closet," "Skin" and "The West Wing." He was nominated for an Emmy Award for his work in the latter, and for the 1987 television movie "Billionaire Boys' Club." Mr. Silver did his best work playing characters of guile or wit. He once assessed his intelligence as that of a scholar, not an actor, and admitted he found it difficult to play a person who was na´ve.

Fittingly, Mr. Silver never lost his interests in politics and international affairs. Well-read and voluble, he made his preference for current affairs over acting abundantly clear in interview after interview. At the 1990 Tony Awards ceremony, he created a small furor by making on-air remarks about the then-threatened NEA and the Chinese democracy movement. From 1991 to 2000, he served as president of the Actors' Equity Association. Mr. Silver traveled to more than 30 countries over the years and in 2000 co-founded the organization One Jerusalem to oppose the Oslo Peace Agreement. Its purpose was to maintain "a united Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel."

Despite having supported New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican, the actor was a lifelong Democrat, campaigning for Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, however, he shifted to the right, speaking out forcefully in favor on conservative political policies and supporting President George W. Bush. He spoke at the United States 2004 Republican National Convention and was nominated by President Bush in 2005 to be a Member of the Board of Directors of the United States Institute of Peace. In February 2008, he began hosting "The Ron Silver Show" on Sirius Satellite Radio.

Mr. Silver sometimes commented that his change in political philosophies cost him work. "I don't really feel like a pariah," he said in 2004, "but I know my opinion isn't appreciated by a large section of my own colleagues in the entertainment industry, although I trust we'll get over that. People are dismissive. It's all 'Come on, Ron, you're too smart for that. Come on, Ron, you must be kidding.' There's no engagement. No one is willing to really discuss the issues." He remained a registered Democrat, however.

His marriage to Lynne Miller ended in divorce. He is survived by a son and a daughter.

"By inclination I am more of a politician than I am an actor," he once said. "I care more about public policy. I care more about pro-choice, the environment, homelessness, and nuclear issues than I do about any part."