Versatile Hollywood villain Henry Silva dies at 95


Henry Silva, an actor who rose to prominence in the 1950s and early 1960s playing smooth-faced, rough-faced heavyweights in Hollywood dramas – notably the dope peddler called ‘Mother’ in ‘A Hatful of Rain” and a North Korean agent in “The Manchurian Candidate,” died Sept. 14 in Los Angeles. He was 95.

His son Scott Silva confirmed the death but did not provide an immediate cause.

Over a five-decade career, Mr. Silva has become one of Hollywood’s busiest character actors, with more than 130 film and television credits. He was of Puerto Rican descent but, as he once joked, he had a face that allowed for “great diversification.”

“I could play almost anything but a Swede – and I’m working on that,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1963.

Mr. Silva was unconventionally handsome, able to convey uncanny menace or rugged masculinity with his poker face, close-set eyes, blade-like cheekbones and curvy physique. He received his breakthrough Broadway role in 1955 as a well-suited but malevolent narcotics salesman in “A Hatful of Rain,” a role he reprized on screen in 1957.

In “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962), based on Richard Condon’s novel about Cold War paranoia, Mr. Silva portrays a communist agent. He poses as a servant of an American Korean War veteran (Laurence Harvey) who was brainwashed by communists to assassinate a US presidential candidate.

“The Manchurian Candidate,” also starring Frank Sinatra, flopped at the box office upon its initial release, but is now considered a strained classic. Critic Peter Travers wrote in People magazine when the film was reissued in 1988 that Mr. Silva reached “a pinnacle of villainy that has not been equaled since”.

Mr. Silva’s other notable early films included “Viva Zapata!” (1952) as a Mexican peasant who confronts the revolutionary main character of Marlon Brando; Gregory Peck’s Western “The Bravados” (1958) as an American Indian who belongs to a gang of murderous outlaws; and “Green Mansions” (1959) as the shoddy son of a Venezuelan tribal chief.

In a change of pace, Mr Silva played one of the half-brothers in the Jerry Lewis comedy ‘Cinderfella’ and was part of Sinatra’s ‘Rat Pack’ casino robber band in ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ (all two in 1960).

Mr Silva said he admired Humphrey Bogart and John Garfield and aspired to play their kind of smart, badass leading men. He had his chance in “Johnny Cool” (1963). His portrayal of a Sicilian-born mobster who hides his killer instincts under a thin, dapper veneer didn’t initially win over audiences or critics.

But “Johnny Cool” has garnered a devoted following over the years. Among his devotees was director Jim Jarmusch, who cast Mr. Silva as the cartoon-obsessed mob capo in “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” (1999). “Henry’s face almost looks like a mask,” Jarmusch told the Chicago Tribune, “but the things that sparkle on it can be very interesting.”

His high-profile opportunities were limited in Hollywood, and Mr. Silva took a long break to work in Europe, where he appeared in films such as “The Return of Mr. Moto” (1965) as a Japanese detective hero and won first prize. played gritty roles in spaghetti westerns such as “The Hills Run Red” (1966) and action films such as “Assassination” (1967) and “The Boss” (1973).

He told the Chicago Sun-Times that mobsters and other criminals often compliment his work. “They say, ‘My God, where did you learn to play us?’ I say, “I have lived with ‘us.’ I grew up with “us” in New York. I knew the guys who ran entire neighborhoods, prostitution rings. I used to shine their shoes. They were like, ‘Kid, come on. I want you to shine my shoes. You [mess] stand up, I’m going to break your head. ”

Mr. Silva, the son of Puerto Rican parents, was born in Brooklyn on September 23, 1926 and grew up in Spanish Harlem. He was about six months old when his father left the family. His mother was illiterate. Mr Silva was a shy student, often scared in primary school because he barely understood English until he was 8 years old.

He found much-needed outlet in movies, especially the “Andy Hardy” film series starring Mickey Rooney about an all-American teenager. “It was about families — something I never had,” Mr. Silva told the Los Angeles Times. He dropped out of school and left home in his mid-teens, working as a dishwasher and a longshoreman, among other jobs, to save money for drama school.

“I spent six years going door to door and hearing ‘No,’ before I got a job as an extra on a TV show for $5,” he recalled to the Tribune. He enrolled in the Actors Studio workshop, where the heartbreaking “A Hatful of Rain” by Michael V. Gazzo evolved. One of the first serious drug addiction dramas, it centered on a young, married war veteran (Ben Gazzara) struggling to kick his narcotics habit.

Mr. Silva’s marriages to Mary Ramus, actress Cindy Conroy (a former Miss Canada) and actress Ruth Earl, with whom he had two children, ended in divorce. Survivors include his sons, Michael Silva and Scott Silva, both of Los Angeles.

On television, Mr. Silva had a memorable role in the 1960s crime drama “The Untouchables” as a ruthless mob enforcer. He also became a mainstay in action films of the 1980s and 1990s, including “Above the Law” with Steven Seagal and “Dick Tracy” (as the owner of the Influence casino), and he played a boxing spectator in director Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 star-studded reboot of “Ocean’s Eleven.”

“I see a lot of actors who play heavyweights, but they always play the same heavyweights,” he told the Tribune in 2000 when asked about his stamina as an on-screen villain. “I have a seven-minute reel of clips from my films, and none of the guys are the same. I don’t always go to the same place, because that would be boring. I read the page and it tells me who the I don’t intrude on the page – I let it affect me – but I don’t play it safe either.

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