Henry Silva, versatile Hollywood villain, dies at 95

Henry Silva, versatile Hollywood villain, dies at 95

Henry Silva, an actor who rose to prominence in the 1950s and early 1960s playing smooth-faced, rough-edged heavies 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.

In a career spanning five decades, Mr. Silva became one of the busiest character actors in Hollywood, with more than 130 credits in films and on television. He was of Puerto Rican heritage but, as he once quipped, was endowed with a face that allowed “great diversification.”

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

Mr. Silva was unconventionally handsome, capable of conveying eerie menace or rugged masculinity with his poker face, close-set eyes, blade-like cheekbones and sinuous physicality. He received his breakthrough role on Broadway in 1955 as the well-tailored but malevolent narcotics pusher in “A Hatful of Rain,” apart from he reprized on-screen in 1957.

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

“The Manchurian Candidate,” also starring Frank Sinatra, flopped at the box office on its initial release but is now regarded as a taut classic. Critic Peter Travers wrote in People magazine upon the film’s 1988 rerelease that Mr. Silva hits “a high in lowdown villainy that hasn’t been matched since.”

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

In a change of pace, Mr. Silva played one of the stepbrothers in the Jerry Lewis comedy “Cinderfella” and was part of Sinatra’s “Rat Pack” band of casino thieves in “Ocean’s Eleven” (both 1960).

Mr. Silva said he admired Humphrey Bogart and John Garfield and that he yearned to play their kind of street-smart, tough-guy leading men. He got his luck in “Johnny Cool” (1963). His portrayal of a Sicilian-born gangster who hides his killer instincts under a thin dapper veneer did not initially win over audiences or critics.

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

His leading-man opportunities were limited in Hollywood, and Mr. Silva took an extended hiatus to work in Europe, where he appeared in such fare as “The Return of Mr. Moto” (1965) as the Japanese detective hero and won top- billed gritty parts in spaghetti westerns such as “The Hills Run Red” (1966) and action films including “Assassination” (1967) and “The Boss” (1973).

He told the Chicago Sun-Times that mobsters and other criminals often complimented his work. “They say, ‘My God, where did you learn how to play us?’ I say, ‘I lived with “us.” I grew up with “us” in New York.’ I used to know the guys who used to run the whole areas, the prostitution rings. I used to shine their shoes. They’d say, ‘Kid, c’mere. I want ya to shine my shoes. You [mess] up, I’ll bust your head.’ ”

Mr. Silva, the son of Puerto Rican parents, was born in Brooklyn on Sept. 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 grade school because he barely understood English until he was 8.

He found a much-needed release in movies, particularly 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 quit school and left home in his mid-teens, working as a dishwasher and longshoreman, among other jobs, to save money for acting school.

“I spent six years knocking on doors, and hearing, ‘No,’ before I got a job as an extra on a television show for $5,” he recalled to the Tribune. He enrolled at the Actors Studio workshop, where Michael V. Gazzo’s harrowing “A Hatful of Rain” evolved. One of the first serious dramas about drug addiction, it centered on a young married war veteran (Ben Gazzara) struggling to break 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 TV, Mr. Silva had a memorable turn on the 1960s crime drama “The Untouchables” as a ruthless mob enforcer. He also became a mainstay of action films of the 1980s and 1990s, including “Above the Law” with Steven Seagal and “Dick Tracy” (as the casino owner Influence), and he played a boxing spectator in director Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 all-star reboot of “Ocean’s Eleven.”

“I see a lot of actors who play heavies, but they always play the same heavies,” he told the Tribune in 2000, when asked about his endurance as a screen bad guy. “I have a seven-minute reel of clips from my movies, 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 character is. I don’t intrude myself on the page — I let it affect me — but I don’t play it safe either.”

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