Lights, Camera, Action!
Ideas, Activism, Democracy!

by Todd S. Purdum, New York Times, December 29, 1993

Ron Silver sits in the vaulting Bauhaus splendor of the Four Seasons, his warm and intelligent eyes engaging a lunch partner but darting every so often to the table nearby where Henry A. Kissinger is dining. Mr. Silver, the actor, union leader and public policy poster boy, will be part of a panel discussion on foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations the next night, and he can't help wondering whether the former Secretary of State will be there.

"He's leaving," Ron the S. says suddenly, acknowledging what seems to be a wave in his direction from Henry the K.,smoothing his soft brown hair and half rising from his seat for an anticipated greeting. but Mr. Kissinger leaves without stopping, and Mr. Silver sits down disappointed and a bit sheepish, like the earnest Chinese studies graduate student he once was and seems determined to remain.

"In Europe, people in the arts are considered part of the intelligentsia; they are considered part of the elite," Mr. Silver says, defending his and other performers' outspoken political involvement in an era when Barbra Streisand has dinner with the Attorney General and is given a health-care briefing at the White House. He talks dutifully about the performances that gave him a higher profile in the first place: his portrayals of Alan Dershowitz in "Reversal of Fortune" and a hapless Holocaust survivor in "Enemies: A Love Story."

But he seems much more interested in his other roles: as a founder of the Creative Coalition, a celebrity group that lobbies for environmental and liberal causes; as president of Actors' Equity Association, the Broadway performers' union, and -- to the chagrin of many of his liberal friends -- as a supporter of Rudolph W. Giuliani and master of ceremonies for the Mayor-elect's inauguration this weekend.

"I'm not an expert in any field," he continues unapologetically. "I can't talk about foreign policy like anyone who's spent their life reading and learning foreign policy. But as a citizen in a democracy, it's very important that I participate in that. Nobody has a franchise on what is good. Isn't the rationale, fundamentally, for democracy, that we're going to get people of unequal abilities to ultimately make very important decisions? So what I decry is that the participation of these people is mocked. What do you want us to do? Have affairs? Become drug addicts? We have a certain visibility, and power in the society. We're a celebrity-ridden society. Why not use that to try to do a little good?"

Mr. Silver's support for Mr. Giuliani is both typical ("I'm an actor by calling but an activist by inclination") and a break for a dedicated Democrat who campaigned for Bill Clinton for president and remains skittish of Republicans. he first met the former prosecutor a decade ago. Mr. Giuliani's wife, Donna, interviewed him for WPIX-TV when he was appearing on Broadway in "Hurlyburly," and they became occasional dinner companions. This year, Mr. Silver made his first campaign commercial for Mr. Giuliani.

"I'm very uncomfortable with the orthodoxies," he says, explaining his reach across party lines. "I simply don't think they serve anymore.

"What I liked about Clinton is what I like about Rudy, strange as that may sound: their approach to crime and family responsibility. They're both very effective at countering arguments about ethnic balkanization and group identity politics being destructive of the unum in America, and too much emphasis on the pluribus perhaps -- whatever."

He complains that Mr. Giuliani's efforts to stress the common bonds of New Yorkers, whatever their race or ethnicity, are misunderstood. "When Rudy says I stand for one city and one standard, and that's seen as code for racism, that's very sad," he says.

It is tempting to dislike Ron Silver. After all, he is a successful actor, with a house in Westchester and a pied-a-terre on Park Avenue, and at 47, unlike many female performers his age, he is steadily employed. Whey must he also lard his conversation with words like "disjunction" and "civic culture," and Spanish toasts and epigrams from Ovid and Milton? Or segue so seamlessly from a discussion of the Passover seder to Greek symposiums, from Hollywood's position in the recent world trade agreement talks to Equity's latest headache (whether to allow producers of a revival of "Damn Yankees" to broadcast the show)? He is, like the showoff in your freshman literature seminar, a bit much.

Yet, in a couple of hours of relaxed talk in his apartment and later over Jack Daniels and expensive spaghetti in the restaurant he chose, it becomes clear that Mr. Silver is not only smart in the glib way that many actors are but also does his homework -- literally. The dining room table in his apartment is littered not with Backstage or Variety but with The Brookings Review and The Washington Post Weekly, and his bookshelves hold heavy titles like "Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil."

Just for fun, he spent 1991 studying the Constitution at Yale Law School (around the same time that he made "Reversal of Fortune," for which he had already prepared by sitting in on classes at Harvard). As a young actor, he earned enough credits at the University of California at Los Angeles for a second bachelor's degree, taking all the courses from anthropology to art history that he had not had the time to take as an undergraduate at SUNY Buffalo or as a graduate student at St. John's.

He cares about the health care debate in part because the cost of caring for AIDS patients has severely taxed Equity's insurance and pension systems. As a presenter at the Tony Awards three years ago, he made his celebrated remarks on the Chinese democracy movement. China was an early passion, and he remains adroit enough at the language "to impress a girl in a restaurant."

Talking with Mr. Silver, it becomes clear too, that he is more than a little wry, and that he has his own number as well as any interviewer might presume to. This is a man who, in his brief flirtations with psychotherapy, was more interested in Freud as a character than a savior and who wrote scenes for an imagined one-man show on Freud's life instead of analyzing his own.

He seems to sense that his voracious learnedness can be overpowering, and he punctuates the ends of his sentences with a self-deprecatory "and this and that -- what-evuh," a linguistic legacy of the Lower East Side, where he grew up the son of a clothing salesman and a schoolteacher. He is painfully aware that all the reading in the world cannot help him in the creative profession he likes to say he "dwindled" into when others of his generation were dwindling into the counterculture.

"I started getting jobs, and I thought it was going to be real easy," he said of his New York career in the early 70's, after $4-an-hour acting classes with Herbert Berghof (and later Lee Strasberg) and a part in a children's theater production as the letter "L" in an unremembered show about the alphabet led him to give up the job he had taken as a city social worker. He had already decided that an earlier goal, a career as a China expert for the Central Intelligence Agency, was not for him.

"Then I realized that to be really good at this requires a lot of energy and concentration and skill," he says. "And I approached it like I approach everything else: 'O.K., who are the great teachers, what are the great things to read about? Let me do the research on this so I know what I'm talking about.' I didn't realize what I realize now: Acting is not about knowing all this stuff; it's about character. I know people, I compete with people, who are not as well educated as I am who are better actors than I will ever be. There's a certain intelligence that actors require that I don't fully possess."

He acknowledges a paradox, since he is often called on to play brainy, hyperarticulate characters like himself. "What's difficult for me to do is to portray somebody terribly naive," he says. "But some actors I have met possess an intelligence that I can only dream of. It's about character, it's about behavior. They understand things about people that I simply don't see. I get lost in a miasma of intellectual . . . " and here he interjects a pungent barnyard expletive.

What Mr. Silver's searching intelligence has got him is a career in which he has the luxury of working only five or six months a year, some choice of parts and an occasional directing assignment for a television movie. After eight years of steady work in Los Angeles, he left in 1984, in part because he never penetrated the inner circle. He says he would happily work more if offered better parts by better directors but acknowledges that he is sometimes typed. "That would be fine," he says ruefully, "if they thought of me, and Pacino and DeNiro as quintessential New York types."

He uses his flexible schedule to play suburban Dad to his 14-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. He and his wife of nearly 20 years, Lynne Miller Silver, a magazine editor, recently separated, and they trade off time in their city and country homes.

After two and a half hours of conversation, and the last drop of a double decaf espresso in the nearly empty room, Mr. Silver has not flagged a bit. He talks of running for another term as Equity president next year and of other challenges ahead. He seems every bit as driven as many of the characters he plays but somehow happier, more fun.

"I am cheery," he says adamantly in response to a question about whether he really can be. "I think it's good to meet smart people and talk. I like to eat good food. I like to watch movies and cry. I have a cheery thing. I think you have an obligation to be an optimist. Because if you're not, nothing will change."

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