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Ron Silver: In Search of a Reuben

'Veronica's Closet' star talks life, politics and Kirstie Alley on a hunt for a meaningful meal

By Georgette Gouveia.
The Journal News (Westchester County, New York), January 4, 1999

It's a lovely spring day in winter, and the actor Ron Silver is right on time for a 10 a.m. interview at City Limits Diner, a popular White Plains meeting place.

The "Veronica's Closet" star and Westchester resident - a hale and hearty fellow - is in characteristically good humor.

"See, you're getting a full-service interview," he says. "I even brought along my girlfriend and my own milk."

He's referring to fashion journalist Catherine de Castelbajac - a tall, striking blonde who looks like the model she once was - and to the carton of Lactaid he's carrying. (He's lactose-intolerant.)

So the signs are auspicious for a brilliant interview. We have great weather. We have punctuality. We have fellowship. We have Lactaid.

There's just one teeny problem: City Limits' morning opening is being delayed one hour due to technical difficulties. (Perhaps the convention of Con Ed trucks outside the restaurant on Central Avenue should've been a clue.)

Silver, who has to deliver de Castelbajac to the train, pick up his daughter at school and catch an afternoon flight to Los Angeles, is undaunted in his quest for breakfast. He soldiers on to Epstein's Kosher Delicatessen & Restaurant farther down on Central Avenue in Hartsdale. De Castelbajac serves as advance scout. The thumbs up: The deli is open. Oops, the thumbs down: But not the restaurant.

Silver remains a man with a plan. We'll head over to the diner on Garth Road. It's at this point that the reporter - who has indeed just passed through that area on her way to White Plains - assumes the kind of deer-caught-in-headlights expression reserved for game-show contestants who have flunked Final Jeopardy.

"It's OK," Silver says reassuringly. "Just follow me."

Like a suburban Odysseus, Silver swings his black Mercedes on to Central Avenue, oblivious to the siren calls of Dunkin' Donuts and other eateries on the thoroughfare. Threading his way through East Hartsdale Avenue while ensuring that the reporter remains in sight, he presses on to the Bronx River Parkway and the Ithaca of Westchester - Scarsdale.

Finally, we arrive at the diner. There are several parking spots across the street. The reporter swoops into one. She thinks Silver is swooping into another. But no, his car is creeping up to hers. The window comes down - a bad sign. The diner is, well, closed.

"All right, get in," Silver tells the reporter. "We'll drive over to the Parkway Coffee Shop."

As the reporter fumbles for the change that isn't coming fast enough out of her wallet to feed her meter, a UPS truck pulls up behind Silver. The actor's car is blocking the UPS truck. The UPS driver is not amused. Honking. Some muttering. Our Odysseus remains undeterred. After all, persistence is what finally brought down Troy.

In the car for the short ride to the Parkway café, Silver suggests the reporter begin asking questions to save time. The reporter remarks on Silver's Web site, put together by Barbara Robertson, a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Disability and Human Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

It's unusual for an academic to create a Web site about an actor. (Somehow, we don't imagine Robertson will be doing a Brad Pitt page.) But then, Silver is known as much for his passionate intelligence and political activism as for his acting skills.

"I would have no less than an academic," he says with mock haughtiness. "No, I was flattered someone wanted to do it."

Finally - the Parkway café, which is, blissfully, open. De Castelbajac, a good sport if there ever was one, settles into a back booth with her newspapers. Silver and the reporter settle into the booth behind hers. The waitress approaches.

"I'll have a Reuben sandwich," Silver says sotto voce so that de Castelbajac cannot hear that he is straying from his diet.

But the waitress has missed her cue.

"What's that?" she says clearly. "A Reuben sandwich? Do you want that with pastrami or corned beef?"

The morning is beginning to resemble an episode of Silver's TV series.

Ah, yes. The series.


NBC's "Veronica's Closet" stars Kirstie Alley of "Cheers" fame as Veronica "Ronnie" Chase, a successful lingerie designer who is nonetheless bothered and bewildered by her new status as a divorcee. As Ronnie's loyal top executive, Kathy Najimy ("Sister Act") is the Ethel to Alley's Lucy. Together they are a key part of the trend to big, bold, beautiful women on TV.

The men in the cast include Dan Cortese as Ronnie's hunky publicist, Daryl "Chill" Mitchell as her exasperated marketing manager and Wallace Langham as her eternally put-upon assistant, a man whose deep denial of his homosexuality is one of the series' more amusing running jokes. In this, the show's second season, Silver has joined the cast as Alec, Ronnie's new business partner. Naturally, his button-down, bottom-line style clashes with her brash, free-wheeling manner. And just as naturally, he is more than a little bit in love with her.

Despite being the highest-rated freshman series last season and owning one of the most enviable time slots on the tube - between "Frasier" and "ER" - some critics see the series as one struggling for laughs. Silver does not read much about the show. All he knows - and what is clear from his performance - is "I'm having a ball. It's something I wanted to do. The cast is wonderful. I'm lucky to be working with nice, successful people. There's a lot of support for the show from the studio, Warner Bros., and the network. I know it sounds Pollyanna, but it's a very pleasant situation, very lovely."

As for Alley - who is often criticized in the media, although it's not clear whether it's for being an eccentric or for being a powerful woman - Silver has nothing but admiration.

"She's a very attractive woman who's not afraid to take risks," he says, adding that it's only in risk-taking that you can explore creativity.

As an actor, Silver has been down this road before. On CBS' "Chicago Hope," he was the lawyer-businessman everyone loved to hate. ("They needed an adversary. On a show like that, the doctors are all saints. Who else are they going to get to be the villain but the lawyer?")

It occurs to the reporter at this point that maybe the reason Silver has excelled at villains ("Blue Steel") and very complex characters ("Reversal of Fortune") is his old-fashioned, intensely verbal book-smarts. This is, after all, a man who earned a bachelor's degree in Chinese and Spanish from the State University of New York at Buffalo and a master's degree in Chinese history from St. John's University and from the College of Chinese Culture in Taiwan. He also attended Yale Law School as a scholar-in-residence before deciding to study at the Actors Studio.

"I do believe all actors are smart," he says. "Anyone who devotes time and attention to what makes people tick, to me, is a smart person."

But Silver knows that as a man who takes pride in being articulate - "I love to talk" - he's a fish out of water in our society.

"This is a very image-conscious culture," he says, tracing the roots of that quality to the '50s. "Marlon Brando and James Dean were icons. The closer they were to their animal nature, the more sensitive they seemed to be. Whereas Jimmy Porter (the protagonist in "Look Back in Anger," a play of that period by England's John Osborne) expresses his rage in a rapier-like wit. The English use words as weapons."

What makes Silver's Alec tick are his expressed vulnerabilities, which provide the actor with a chance for the kind of fun he couldn't have on the drama "Chicago Hope." Also, a dramatic series is at least a 15-hour, six-day-a-week commitment. With a sitcom, which is as close as an actor gets to a 9-to-5 job on TV, Silver has more of an opportunity to have a life and come back East to spend time with his teen-age son and daughter.

So protective a parent is the divorced Silver that he prefers not to give his children's names or say where in Westchester he lives. (It was partly because of the county's good schools and wide open green spaces that he moved here.) The truest words his parents ever spoke to him, Silver says, are "wait till you have children of your own." The irony is not lost on Silver: Like many baby boomers, he has become his parents.

Hi parents - Irving, who was in the clothing business, and May, a teacher - are both retired. A Parkway patron stops by Silver's booth to shake his hand. Does he want an autograph? No, he just wants to be remembered to Irving and May.

"My parents are more famous than I am," Silver says with a laugh and more than a touch of pride.

"They were always worried you wouldn't have two nickels to rub together," the patron reminds him.

"They're still worried," he quips.


They needn't be. Their Tony Award-winning son ("Speed the Plow") is working on a play about rock promoter Bill Graham, which should prove to be a good, edgy part for the actor, whose dark, compact looks and distinctive vocal rhythms continue to evoke Al Pacino.

And there's always the possibility of a role on the political stage. Silver has been president of Actors Equity since 1991 and was the founding president of the Creative Coalition, a grass-roots political organization of artists that recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. (He now sits on the Coalition's board and also serves as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.)

Silver describes himself as a vigilant progressive, one who can embrace New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's tough-love policies as well as more traditionally liberal positions.

"I never say never about anything," Silver adds. "But why should I run for office and lose what little influence I have?"

Perhaps he could work on the state's "I Love New York" ad campaign. Silver is a natural New York enthusiast, the kind who traces different chapters in his life to different regions - college in Buffalo, work in the Catskills, friendships scattered throughout Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess counties.

Diehard New Yorker though he is, Silver is astonished to learn that Mel Gibson is from Westchester (born in Peekskill, raised in Verplanck). The reporter explains that Gibson himself didn't know Peekskill is in Westchester.

With a knowing look, Silver taps the unsuspecting de Castelbajac on the shoulder and says, "For any piece of jewelry you want, where was Mel Gibson born?"

"Australia," she says.

"Nope, sorry, that jewelry will have to wait."

But Silver is just teasing. Clearly, he is going to be good to de Castelbajac, who joins the conversation at its conclusion.

The man who loves to talk now sits back and lets the women chat about everything from makeup to the Van Gogh exhibit in Washington, D.C.

Then he picks up the tab. It's time to go. There are trains and planes to catch.

And who knows? With any luck, the airline will serve lunch. And Ron Silver will not be on an odyssey for his next meal.

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