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March 17, 2009

Remembering Ron: A Tale of Two Silvers

We're not related, but I've always felt something of a kinship with actor Ron Silver, who died over the weekend of esophageal cancer at the age of 62. A talented actor, and a political activist and commentator of much more heft and gravitas than most in his profession, Silver leaves behind a substantial and memorable body of work.

A winner of Tonys and Emmys, Silver had a distinguished career as a stage, TV and movie actor that spanned 30 years and more than 70 movies, speaking with great strength and authority both on-screen and off.

Silver specialized in playing real people Angelo Dundee in Ali, Bobby Riggs in the TV movie When Billie Beat Bobby, Henry Kissinger in Kissinger and Nixon and two different O.J. Simpson lawyers in different movies (Alan Dershowitz in Reversal of Fortune and Robert Shapiro in An American Tragedy.) One blogger pointed out Monday that Silver, had he lived, would've been an obvious choice to play Bernard Madoff in the inevitable biopic.

Other memorable TV roles included two separate stints as Machiavellian political consultant Bruno Gianelli on The West Wing, and as peacenik lawyer Bernie Adler on a few episodes of Law & Order

Silver's real-life political views were even more idiosyncratic. The New York native who grew up as a staunch liberal traveling to more than 30 countries and considering a career as a spy Silver co-founded the Hollywood advocacy group the Creative Coalition, and spent the 1990s supporting President Bill Clinton as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. In early 2003, the Wall Street Journal reported that, at the time, Silver stood up during a dinner panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, defending America from charges of imperialism while citing the Kosovo intervention.

But his politics began to drift rightward following 9/11, frequently appearing on talk shows to defend the Iraq War and other Bush Administration policies, and even speaking at the Republican National Convention in 2004. While remaining an unabashed social liberal, Silver took the idea of liberalism to what some, in those days, saw as its logical conclusion that the most illiberal force on Earth, Islamic terrorism, must be confronted and defeated.

My fellow Silver and I parted company in our politics around the time of the 2004 vote. While my brief post-9/11 neocon phase ended by then, his never did. But I give him credit for staying true to his convictions, even as they reached a place not generally accepted by those in Hollywood.

In the last years of his life, which coincided with the rise of the blogosphere, Silver became a celebrity for a third reason. In 2003, he starred on a Fox drama called Skin, which was a rehash of Romeo and Juliet in which Lord Capulet and Montague were, respectively, the district attorney of Los Angeles and a notorious porn king in the D.A.'s crosshairs, whose son and daughter of course become star-crossed lovers. Silver played the pornographer, and in the show's promos, which aired roughly one million times during that year's baseball playoffs, his character was seen screaming at his daughter, "HIS FATHER IS THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY!"

Skin, alas, was canceled after two episodes, which in retrospect was fortuitous for Silver's future career as a right-wing pundit. But "HIS FATHER IS THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY" quickly became a catchphrase on baseball blogs, and has remained one to this day.

I have one more favorite Silver anecdote. During that same 2004 Republican convention, MSNBC held its live panels in New York's Herald Square, and on the convention's final night, Silver participated in a panel that took place at 2 a.m. Also on the panel Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, who took turns insulting the different guests. Somehow, the topic of discussion turned to Iran's nuclear ambitions, and Silver began debating war and peace with Triumph before catching himself, and realizing that he was arguing with a sock puppet.

Ron Silver's career was a unique combination of actor and political pundit, highbrow and lowbrow, and New York and Hollywood. He was one of a kind and will be greatly missed.


2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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