The How and Why of Howard Da Silva

Today we treat of the great character actor Howard Da Silva (Howard Greenblatt, 1909-1986), whose stout visage and booming voice were so memorable as the bartender in Lost Weekend (1945), Benjamin Franklin in both the stage and screen versions of 1776 (1969, 1972), Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby (1974, and George Wilson in the earlier 1949 version), Khrushchev in The Missiles of October (1974), FDR in The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), and Louis B. Mayer in Mommie Dearest (1981). He was often cast as rough, flashy, eccentric and ruthless characters, which he invested with brains and heart. Honestly I can’t think of another actor quite like him.

A native of Cleveland, Da Silva was the son of Yiddish speaking Russian Jews. He was a steelworker for a time and attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology (later known as Carnegie-Melon) before becoming part of Eva La Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre in the late ’20s. Around this time he took the Portuguese surname he is known for; one wonders if he was thinking of the famous Tin Pan Alley songwriter. In any event, with La Gallienne’s company Da Silva came to Broadway in the early ’30s, playing roles in Shakespeare, Chekhov, and adaptations of Alice in Wonderland and Molnar’s Liliom, which became the basis of the musical Carousel, among other things. He then joined the Group Theatre, taking part in the original productions of Golden Boy (1937) and Casey Jones (1938). He was also in Orson Welles’ legendary production of The Cradle Will Rock (1938), and the original Broadway productions of Robert Sherwood’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1938), and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (1943, as the original Jud).

It would be a natural assumption that the 1940 film version of Abe Lincoln in Illinois was what brought Da Silva to Hollywood, for he reprised his stage role in it, but he had actually been in two movies previous to that: Once in a Blue Moon (1935) with Jimmy Savo, and Marie Antoinette (1938). There followed roles in The Sea Wolf (1941), Sergeant York (1941), Duffy’s Tavern (1945), The Blue Dahlia (1946), Two Years Before the Mast (1946), Variety Girl (1947), They Live By Night (1948), and the 1951 remake of M!

In 1951, Da Silva was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee where he pled the Fifth, resulting in a Hollywood blacklisting that lasted a decade. During this time he returned to Broadway, where his most notable role was in the original 1959 production of Fiorello!

In 1962 he returned to film in the role of a psychiatrist in the independent Frank and Eleanor Perry film David and Lisa (1962) with Janet Margolin and Keir Dullea (of 2001: A Space Odyssey). Thereafter his screen career resumed great guns, at which time he appeared in the many films we mentioned in the first paragraph, as well as Nevada Smith (1966) with Steve McQueen, and Smile Jennie You’re Dead (1974), as well as TV shows like Mannix, Kung Fu, and Love American Style. His last role was in Garbo Talks (1984) directed by Sidney Lumet, with the tantalizing cast of Anne Bancroft, Ron Silver, Carrie Fisher, Catherine Hicks, Steven Hill (the original D.A. on Law and Order), Harvey Fierstein, Hermione Gingold, Richard B. Shull, and Denny Dillon.

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.