Award-Winning Actor Fought for Causes

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 16, 2009

Ron Silver, 62, a Tony Award-winning actor who excelled in intense and unconventional roles, notably on film as Harvard legal scholar Alan Dershowitz in "Reversal of Fortune" and a Holocaust survivor balancing three wives in "Enemies: A Love Story," died March 15 of esophageal cancer in New York City.

Mr. Silver gained a reputation as a formidable political activist for liberal causes. He headed a major theatrical union in the 1990s and campaigned for several Democratic presidential contenders, including former senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey.

In 1989, he helped form the Creative Coalition, a group of liberal Democratic actor-activists including Susan Sarandon and Alec Baldwin who supported and testified before Congress about First Amendment rights, arts funding and public education.

"Basically I'm trying to be useful," he told the Los Angeles Times. "I've always thought involvement in public affairs is a legitimate use of celebrity. A celebrity's capacity for indignation is as great as any other citizen's, but our ability to find a forum for its expression is greater."

He startled many of his activist peers in 2004 by calling himself "a 9/11 Republican" and speaking at the Republican National Convention in New York City.

"If we don't get this right," he told the New York Times about the war on terror, "all the other things don't matter worth a hill of beans. I'll live to fight another day on health care, environmental concerns and sensible gun legislation."

As a performer, Mr. Silver was described as smoldering, expressive and brainy. In Hollywood, he was often cast in ethnic and offbeat roles, including as a union boss, in "Silkwood" (1983), and a psychopath, in "Blue Steel" (1990).

One of his meatiest roles was portraying Dershowitz in "Reversal of Fortune" (1990). In the film, Dershowitz, a champion of unpopular causes, agrees to handle the legal appeal of Claus von Bulow (Jeremy Irons), a slippery aristocrat who had been found guilty of trying to kill his wife with insulin.

"If Mr. Irons's Claus von Bulow gives the film its satiric tone," wrote New York Times film critic Vincent Canby, "Mr. Silver's Alan Dershowitz gives it its energy and its singularly tough, unsentimental conscience."

The same year, Washington Post film critic Desson Howe praised Mr. Silver's "desperate, harried vitality" in "Enemies: A Love Story," based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer novel about a Jew so traumatized by the Holocaust he finds himself unable to make decisions.

As Herman Broder, Mr. Silver drives himself into spiritual, emotional and financial bankruptcy married to three women simultaneously: the smothering peasant Yadwiga (Margaret Sophie Stein), the lusty and unstable Masha (Lena Olin) and the wry Tamara (Anjelica Huston).

The late 1980s and early 1990s marked Mr. Silver's career peak in Hollywood and Broadway. He had won the Tony for best actor as an unctuous movie producer in David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow" (1988), a drama that also starred pop singer Madonna and Joe Mantegna.

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