Feature

Ron Silver

The veteran actor who was a maverick political activist

The veteran actor who was a maverick political activist
Ron Silver
1946–2009

Actor Ron Silver, who has died of esophageal cancer at 62, had a knack for playing quirky, edgy characters. He was the driven Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz in the film Reversal of Fortune, the Machiavellian campaign strategist Bruno Gianelli on TV’s The West Wing, and the loathsome Hollywood producer Charlie Fox in David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, for which he won a Tony Award. But Silver was equally well known for his unorthodox politics. A longtime champion of gay rights, abortion rights, and stem-cell research, after 9/11 he began to focus more on foreign policy and vigorously supported the war in Iraq, cheered on President Bush’s war on terror, and spoke at the 2004 Republican National Convention. “I’m really on the progressive left of the right of center,” he once said, describing himself as a “9/12 Republican.”

Silver’s affinity for both drama and politics developed after he finished graduate studies in Chinese at St. John’s University, said The Washington Post. Traveling to Southeast Asia and the Soviet Union, “he was arrested in Leningrad for possessing Chinese study materials, but bribed his way out with two cartons of American cigarettes.” Silver considered becoming a China expert for the Central Intelligence Agency, but, as he later recalled, “to be my age in 1968–69 and want to work for the CIA was kind of perverse.” Instead, “his relationship with an actress led him to pursue dramatic studies with Lee Strasberg.” Soon, Silver was in Los Angeles, playing small roles in such TV series as Rhoda and such movies as Semi-Tough.

Silver turned in many memorable performances, said the Los Angeles Times, including as a cop stalker in Blue Steel (1990) and a struggling single father in Rhapsody in Bloom (1998). “He raised his profile considerably by making something of a specialty of playing true-life figures.” Silver portrayed Henry Kissinger in the TNT movie Kissinger and Nixon (1995), defense attorney Robert Shapiro in the CBS miniseries American Tragedy (2000), and the “chauvinist, over-the-hill tennis champ Bobby Riggs” in ABC’s When Billie Beat Bobby (2001). “But through the years, Silver’s steady work as an actor vied with his offstage role as a political activist,” often for Democratic causes. A longtime president of Actors Equity, he campaigned for Bill Clinton and Bill Bradley, attended the 1992 and 2000 Democratic National Conventions, and helped form the Creative Coalition, which campaigned for arts funding and the First Amendment.

“Still, he had contrary impulses, and he paid attention to them,” said The New York Times. An advocate of President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” defense program, Silver stumped for Rudy Giuliani in his 1994 New York City mayoral race and his 2008 presidential campaign. Most famously, he supported President George W. Bush for a second term, mainly because of his war against Islamic fanaticism. “If we don’t get this right,” Silver said, “all the other things don’t matter worth a hill of beans.” Silver also helped produce Fahrenhype 9/11, a critical look at the anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 by filmmaker Michael Moore, whom he compared to Josef Goebbels. His conservative causes, he said in 2004, cost him friends and jobs in liberal Hollywood. “It’s affected me very badly. This community is not very pluralistic. I haven’t worked in 10 months.”

Silver is survived by his parents, two children, and two brothers. One of his brothers, Mitchell, said that Silver told him that he voted for Barack Obama for president.

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