R.I.P. Henry Silva

Character actor Henry Silva passed away on September 14, just one day shy of his 96th birthday.

Upon seeing the name, my immediate reaction was to confuse him with two other character actors, Howard Da Silva and Frank Silvera. But any photo of him immediately clears everything up. Silva had an unmistakable face. You may not immediately assign it to a specific movie, but I for one picture him in a turtleneck and blazer, his black gloved hands fixing a scope to a high-powered rifle on a rooftop, preparing for an assassination. With the beady, closely set eyes and low-hanging brows he always reminded me of a Dick Tracy villain, and I know I’m not the only one who thinks so because he was cast in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990).

In a 1971 interview Silva wondered aloud why he was cast as thugs and criminals in American movies, but as heroes in Italian and Spanish ones. Perhaps the question was rhetorical, or he was too polite to answer it aloud, but surely we know the answer was racism. Silva was dark, half Sicilian/half Spanish, and to American casting directors and audiences for a very long time (and to certain ones to this day) that read as “bad guy”. Fortunately for Silva he was fluent in both Italian and Spanish and it allowed him to become an international star, even if the country of his birth regarded him primarily as “heavy” material.

Silva was raised in Harlem and trained at the Actor’s Studio. He began to get roles as he neared his 30th birthday by way of Elia Kazan, who cast him in a bit part in Viva Zapata! (1950), and the original Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real (1953). He was also in the Broadway premiere of A Hatful of Rain (1955). (To add to the confusion Frank Silvera was also in both of those plays). Silva retained his role as “Mother” in the 1957 screen version of A Hatful of Rain. One wonders if its similarity to The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) attracted Frank Sinatra to Silva’s talents, for he gave him great roles in the original Ocean’s 11 (1960), Sergeants 3 (1962) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Then Rat Pack exile Peter Lawford (acting as producer) cast him as the lead in Johnny Cool (1957) featuring Joey Bishop, Sammy Davis Jr, and Telly Savalas. It co-starred Elizabeth Montgomery and was directed by her husband William Asher. Another Rat Pack adjacent film was Cinderfella (1960) by Dean Martin’s old partner Jerry Lewis (Silva played one of his wicked stepbrothers). This was alongside appearances (usually as Mexican or Native Americans) in numerous now classic westerns: The Tall T (1957) with Randolph Scott, The Law and Jake Wade (1958) with Robert Taylor, The Bravados (1958) with Gregory Peck, Ride a Crooked Trail (1958) with Audie Murphy, The Jayhawkers (1959) with Jeff Chandler and Fess Parker, and the aforementioned Sergeants 3.

Starting in the mid ’60s he alternated work in spaghetti westerns like The Hills Run Red (1966) with American television shows like Wagon Train, Laredo, and High Chaparral. As a kid I know I would have seen him on The Streets of San Francisco, The F.B.I., and Switch. In 1977 Sinatra employed him again in Contract on Cherry Street, one of his last acting roles. He has scores of credits in low budget actions films, both American and foreign, from his last decades, though that’s not my kind of fare (Sharkey’s Machine, 1981, with Burt Reynolds is one of the few of these I’m aware of).

But in the American market he had acquired sufficient recognizability to be useful in eye-winking camp and comedy, and I certainly know him from those kinds of roles. These would include guest shots on the tv shows Quark (1978) and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979), the John Sayles-penned Alligator (1980), Cannonball Run II (1984) with the Rat Pack, Paul Bartel’s Lust in the Dust (1985), Alan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold (1986), Amazon Women on the Moon (1987, as host of the “Bullshit, or Not?” segment), Dick Tracy (1990), and The Silent of the Hams (1994).

His last proper role was a special one: he’s second-billed as the villain to Forest Whitaker in Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999). His last credit was as an extra in Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 remake of Ocean’s 11.

Vaya Con Dios!