Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Sad passings

Sonny Michaels and Bruno Gianelli (1946-2009)

No doubt most actors would prefer to be remembered for what they consider their finest performances. Often these would be stage roles or in movies that were not necessarily blockbusters. Ron Silver, who died on Sunday at the age of 62, had several such performances, and they have been duly cited by the writers of his obituaries.

Silver had a number of such roles that he could take pride in. His high point, artistically, would certainly be playing Hollywood producer Charlie Fox in David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow on Broadway. He won a Tony award for that performance in 1988. He also appeared in David Rabe’s Hurlyburly and in Andrew Bergman’s Social Security, co-starring with Marlo Thomas. The list of his prestige film work would be topped by his performance as Herman Broder, a Holocaust survivor, in Paul Mazursky’s Enemies: A Love Story.

But, being the way we are in the mass public, most of us probably remember him more for appearances in more crowd-pleasing movies. Like his supporting roles in movies like Garbo Talks (with Anne Bancroft), Blue Steel (with Jamie Lee Curtis), Mr. Saturday Night (with Billy Crystal) or, most particularly, his turn as the villain politician in the Jean-Claude Van Damme flick Timecop. Silver also had a penchant for playing real life characters, and an actor rarely fit a role as well as Silver playing attorney Alan Dershowitz in Reversal of Fortune, about accused attempted murderer Claus von Bülow. He would later play Dershowitz’s dream team colleague Robert Shapiro (with Richard Cox playing Dershowitz) in the TV movie American Tragedy, about the O.J. Simpson double murder trial. He also played, on the small screen, murder victim Ron Levin in Billionaire Boys Club, Henry Kissinger in the TV movie Kissinger and Nixon (with Beau Bridges) and tennis player Bobby Riggs in When Billie Beat Bobby, as well as Angelo Dundee in the 2001 Will Smith flick Ali.

But most people may have come to know and appreciate Silver for his numerous roles on television series. He was a regular on The Stockard Channing Show and Skin and had recurring roles on Wiseguy, Chicago Hope and Veronica’s Closet. Personally, I tend to think of him for two television roles that more or less bookended his career. I first noticed him as Valerie Harper’s macho neighbor Sonny in her sitcom Rhoda. There was something quintessentially New York about Silver, and his presence was part of what made Rhoda’s environment really seem like The Bronx. Three decades later he played hard-driving political adviser Bruno Gianelli, first to Martin Sheen and then to Alan Alda, in The West Wing.

It probably was not a coincidence that that fictional switch from a Democratic candidate to a Republican one mirrored Silver’s own political life. The actor was always an activist. In many ways, he was a typical Hollywood liberal. He was an advocate of abortion rights, gay rights and stem cell research. He served as president of Actors’ Equity, the stage actors union. But he was also a strong supporter of Israel, becoming a founding member of One Jerusalem to advocate for an undivided Israeli capital, and of a strong U.S. defense. He supported Ronald Reagan’s “star wars” defense plan. He supported Bill Clinton’s campaigns and attended the 1992 and 2000 Democratic national conventions. But he also supported Rudolph Giuliani for mayor of New York.

Perhaps no one public figure better represents what people mean when they throw around phrases like “pre-9/11 mindset” and “post-9/11 mindset.” When his home town of New York was attacked in 2001, he was dramatically and very publicly changed, and thus he was a very visible example of what a lot of us felt in the wake of September 11—that we had been irrevocably changed. For many of us, it was the first time in our lifetime that attacks of this sort had taken place on U.S. soil and suddenly the idea that there were people out there who wanted to destroy America was no longer an abstraction but a chilling reality.

Silver annoyed a lot of his Hollywood colleagues by speaking at the 2004 Republican convention and supporting the re-election of George W. Bush. He supported Giuliani in the 2008 primaries, although his brother said that on Election Day he wound up voting for Barack Obama. Along with Senator Joe Lieberman, he seems to be the last vestige of what was once a prominent political demographic, as exemplified by now deceased senators like New York’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Washington’s Henry “Scoop” Jackson: the domestic liberal who is also a strong hawk of foreign policy. If he lost a lot of work because of his politics, he took it in stride and did not complain about it, insisting that there was no organized blacklist.

Mary Shelley and Patty Hearst (1963-2009)

Many of us got our first look at Natasha Richardson in Ken Russell’s very strange 1986 film Gothic. She played Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of the classic horror novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. Russell’s movie gave the story of the famous night that spawned the idea for the book—when she, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley (Julian Sands) and Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) scared each other with ghost stories—a contemporary twist, depicting it as a long drug-fueled night of hallucination and debauchery. Richardson was mesmerizing in that film. Lithe and blonde and (in my memory anyway) spending the movie running around in a flimsy nightdress, she was a young man’s dream. As some say in rural Ireland, I had the bad thoughts.

She was acting royalty. She was the granddaughter of Sir Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson and the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and Oscar-winning director Tony Richardson (Tom Jones). As a child, she appeared in The Charge of the Light Bridge, directed by her father, and in the Italian film High Crime, which starred her stepfather Franco Nero. She was married to producer Robert Fox (brother of actors James and Edward), but in 1994 she married Liam Neeson, with whom she worked on Broadway in Anna Christie and in Michael Apted’s Nell, which starred Jodie Foster as a woman living in isolation who spoke a language all her own.

Other notable roles over her all-too-brief quarter-century career: the title role in Paul Schrader’s Patty Hearst, Fat Man and Little Boy with Paul Newman, Volker Schlöndorff’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers, and Widow’s Peak with Mia Farrow and Joan Plowright. She also took the Maureen O’Hara role in the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap in which she played the mother of twins played by Lindsay Lohan. And she played Josh Hartnett’s mother in Paddy Breathnach’s Blow Dry and appeared in Maid in Manhattan with Jennifer Lopez and in James Ivory’s The White Countess, along with her mother and her aunt Lynn Redgrave.

In 1998 she received a Tony award for playing Sally Bowles in a revival of Cabaret. Her last film appearance was as the headmistress of an English boarding school, which becomes home to a spoiled California teen played by Emma Roberts, in Wild Child.

Our hearts go out to her friends and family, especially her two sons.

-S.L., 19 March 2009

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