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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
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.
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