Sex, politics and Ron Silver. (interview)

by Mark Lasswell
Cosmopolitan, Sept 1991

I'm trying," says Ron Silver, "to make up for lost time." Indeed, when he talks--and he does a lot of that--the words are fired with quick precision, as if he wants to minimize the aerodynamic drag on his ideas. When he eats, it's a little fast and a little sloppy--he hasn't quite reconciled himself to the fact that he can't make another point while he's swallowing. When he walks, he's like a bantam rooster late for an appointment.

"For about the first ten years of my career, I wasn't terribly motivated," he says. "I didn't really care much about what I was doing. I would go, I would come back. I just stayed home a lot and read." But his days of lolling in sitcomland (you might recall him in Rhoda) are well behind Silver now. He has been working overtime in film roles and winning at the game of catch-up--in the past eighteen months, he has played a killer in Blue Steel, a lawyer in Reversal of Fortune, and a relentless lothario in Enemies, a Love Story. Now he's part of the comic ensemble in Married to It, which opens this month.

No doubt Silver still likes to read, and he arrives for lunch at Da Tommaso, a cheerfully elegant Italian restaurant on New York's West Side, with a book prominently sticking out of his jacket pocket. Within seconds of sitting down, Silver has the book in his hands. It's called Pornography and Civil Rights, a feminist treatise by Catharine A. MacKinnon and intrepid penishater Andrea Dworkin. He's beside himself because he's seeing Madonna later in the day and can't wait to spring the book on her. "I'll dare her to read it and tell me if she thinks it's the truth," he says.

The two met in 1988, when they worked together onstage in Speed-the-Plow, a play that seems to have done more for Silver's acting career than it did for Madonna's. The great media beast turned its attention to the David Mamet play and wanted to know only one thing: Could the material girl hold her own with serious actors? That was fine with Silver, whose drift from television to minor film roles hadn't attracted much attention. His work onstage in David Rabe's Hurlyburly, in 1984, enhanced his resume, but it was the Tony award for his portrayal of a sleazy producer in Speed-the-Plow that cemented his reputation. Offers of meatier movie roles soon followed.

"The way it works in this country," Silver says, "is once you are esteemed, you become estimable." Another way it works in this country is that once you appear on-screen as a dark and brooding leading man who has a red-hot love scene with Lena Olin, you become a source of considerable fascination for women. That appears to have been the effect of Enemies, a Love Story, a black comedy about a Holocaust survivor and epic philanderer who dispiritedly drags himself from one woman to another in postwar New York City.

"He's always burning under the surface," says Stockard Channing, who isn't surprised that Silver is quickening women's pulses. She has known him since their days together on television in The Stockard Channing Show in 1980, and she worked with him again in Married to It. "There's a certain sexuality about Ron that's extremely attractive. It's linked to his intelligence, to his playfulness, and to a real down-to-earthness, which is a terrific combination. He honestly loves women, without condescension and without phonybaloney stuff, and that's extremely attractive."

Silver chivalrously says he's unaware that ever since Enemies women have been thinking of him in a new light--a night-light. "I'm a married guy," he protests. His marriage, in fact, is one of those exotic rarities in the entertainment world, a long-term affair with the same woman. They met in the sixties as undergrads at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where Silver was studying Spanish and Chinese, and have been married almost sixteen years. Silver seems relieved that Lynne, a contributing editor at Self magazine, is not in show business (unless you count her belly dancing back in the early seventies), because the lack of competition has spared the relationship innumerable strains. Although his role in Married to It doesn't reflect his real-life experience--he plays a divorced father trying to preserve his relationship with his child and salvage his second marriage--he says playing the part did prompt him to contemplate exactly what relationships are all about. "I don't even like to use the word relationship. I don't know what it means. Relate to what? I relate to the TV, I relate to basketball," he says. Then, typical of his approach when discussing personal matters, he suddenly heads into deeper water: "The twentieth century has exhibited a barbarism and lack of respect for human life on a massive scale just about unknown before. The social fabric is fairly rent, and we're still desperately trying to hold on to this institution of marriage."

And if it's a challenge to keep a relationship intact in the modern world, he says, it's just as difficult to feel certain that you're instilling enough stability and certainty in your children's lives. "If I don't see my wife for six weeks, I can survive quite nicely," he says. "If I don't see my kids for six days, I start to get withdrawal pains. I would rather be called a bad actor or a naive, foolish activist than a less-than-adequate father."

Silver, it seems, is doing his bit to mend the social fabric by leading as normal a life as possible. The family of four (a son, twelve, and a daughter, eight) live in a mission-style home in suburban Westchester, New York, where the kids go to a public school, Mom stays home, and Dad hops the train into the city. Of course, he might be taking the train in to meet with a Congressional delegation to discuss health-care legislation or to attend the opening of the Human Rights Film Festival, of which he is a board member. And at least once a week, when he's not on location making a movie, Silver takes care of business at the offices of The Creative Coalition, a political-action group he founded two years ago for people in entertainment and the arts. But it's a relatively staid life, exactly what he wants for his children.

"I think this whole quality-time thing is bull," he says. "I really do. It's a rationalization for people who are very indulgent about their lives to make it seem like 'Oh no, it actually works out much better like this.'"

That's the surprising sort of line Silver drops from time to time that prevents eyes from glazing over when people expect to hear just another politically active celebrity expounding. He might adopt liberal causes--defending the National Endowment for the Arts, abortion, the homeless--but there's nothing knee-jerk about him, right down to his politically incorrect selection from the menu when we have lunch together. (He orders and promptly says to me, "That's off the record.")

Because Silver is well-read and tosses in alternative views even as he's espousing his own, it sometimes seems like he's not so much talking as doing an impression of Ted Koppel on Nightline. And no matter what the topic is, all roads seem to lead back to politics, government, and public policy.

Asked to name the worst thing a magazine has written about him, he immediately fingers a recent GQ cover story on costar Jeremy Irons. The writer completely misread what was happening on the set of Reversal of Fortune, he says, and turned in a "sloppy, shoddy piece of journalism" that made Silver look bad. That said, he segues to what really interests him about the media: the First Amendment, and his assertion that the press rarely assesses itself. "I have never seen a front-page piece in the New York Times say, 'What the New York Post did yesterday was absolutely horrendous and unprofessional,'" he says grumpily. "It's like they practice professional courtesy. . . . It's like they're doctors."

Asked how he feels about television work now that he's doing nicely in films, he points out that two of his best roles were in recent television productions (Forgotten Prisoners: From the Amnesty Files, for TNT, and the HBO/BBC telefilm Fellow Traveller). But then he launches into a discussion of what a great job the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission must have and what a fascinating subject television regulation is, sounding as if he'd like to do it himself.

Silver admits that maybe his interests are a little too wide-ranging. He might not even have remained an actor if it weren't for his family's support, he says, because "I kind of have a dilettantish spirit about me. I still think I'm going to do something else when I grow up." And he adds that lately he has come to realize he's spreading himself thin. Too many invitations to lend his support to too many good causes. Too many receptions, too many benefits. "I have to rediscover some equilibrium," he says. "Otherwise, I'll just be answering correspondence all day long and flying here and there. It's not like I'm the most famous person in the world. The people who are really famous--I can imagine what they're inundated with."

Walking across town to stop by the office of The Creative Coalition, Silver slices through the afternoon crowds like a veteran New Yorker--he grew up on the Lower East Side, where his parents still live--but the foot speed is also that of an actor for whom, even if he's not one of the really famous, the novelty of being recognized on the street wore off a while ago. As much in demand as he is, he says he doesn't have any new acting jobs to discuss because, well, he's too busy with school. He has been attending Yale Law School as a visiting scholar and finds it so enjoyable that he has actually turned down roles.

"It cost me a lot of money," he says, ruefully noting that he could have just had a friend tape the lectures on arts subsidies and the media that he was dying to hear. He has attended graduate school intermittently throughout his adult life, he says, but it wasn't until he worked with Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz in preparation for Reversal of Fortune that he realized he "had a little flair" for legal argumentation. A few months later, he mentioned his budding interest to Married to It producer Tom Baer, who happened to be a Yale Law School graduate. Baer made a few calls, and before long, Silver was regularly making the drive to New Haven.

Silver says his position as the oldest kid in class is a challenging if not always comfortable distinction. When famous cases from the fifties came up, for instance, the students had a way of turning expectantly to Silver. "I'd say, 'Excuse me, I was seven years old then.'" And for a sixties-vintage undergraduate, it was sometimes disheartening to see Reagan-era grads discussing law: "Nothing gets a bigger laugh than when you refer to things like ethics or human rights."

Still, Silver says he found the intellectual atmosphere at Yale so stimulating that he's doing everything he can to avoid the place. "I have to get a movie that starts soon," he says, "because I'm afraid that if the semester starts, I'm finished. I'll be there until January."

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