his is a really embarrassing moment. "Thom, could you do me a favor?" calls out movie star Ron Silver, breaking off his very serious disquisition on feelings of political powerlessness among the American people, and movie stars in particular, to address the publicist sitting cat-still across the room. "I have a 4 o'clock, ahh -- if you'll excuse this, this is silly -- a massage appointment. I will not be able to make it, nor do I want to make it. I want to complete this interview. Do me a favor, cancel it for me, and tell them I'll pay for it, whatever it is."
Do they come to the room and do it, here at the Four Seasons, where stars stay in Washington?
"Yeah," Silver admits somewhat sheepishly. "They do. They actually do."
Then, to Thom (loudly): "But just say I'm awfully sorry, I would rather do this than that."
Wait a minute -- why not just go ahead and have the massage, while continuing the interview?
A smile creeps over Silver's warmly intelligent, much photographed, million-dollar face. "Ohhh no. I'd feel silly doing that. That would be real Hollywoody and stupid. That's the last thing in the world I would do! I have a massage once a month -- I'm not going to have it with you, while I'm doing the interview, so you can write, 'He was having a massage.' "
Then he pauses, eyes beginning to glitter.
And laughs out loud.
Like so many actors, Silver wants more. To be taken seriously in other ways too. To delve into politics. It's not enough that he's terrific at his job, that his energetic portrayal of Claus von Bulow's lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, in the new movie "Reversal of Fortune" single-handedly keeps the plot powering through glacial waters of domestic hate, that his roles as a psychopathic killer in "Blue Steel" and lying, loving womanizer in "Enemies, a Love Story" drew positive reviews, or that he received the Tony for best actor for his role as a Hollywood producer in David Mamet's 1988 Broadway hit "Speed-the-Plow."
"Involvement in public affairs is a legitimate use of celebrity," he contended on Fox TV's "Off the Record" during a recent visit to Washington. In fact, Silver came here just to tape the show, granting a newspaper interview on the side. "We're going to analyze the election," he quips of the show. "Why they want that I don't know. Perhaps they want a different perspective, they're tired of all this punditry and they want a little entertainment."
Much of Silver's attention recently was focused on funding for the National Endowment for the Arts in the face of allegations that it supported obscene projects. "We did the 'Donahue' show," he says, "me and Chris Reeves, Susan Sarandon and Kathleen Turner. I did 'Crossfire' with Charlton Heston, and then Chris did it with Pat Robertson."
Binding the actors together is the Creative Coalition, a new organization of 260 of them of which Silver is president, and which aims to project their political views more effectively. "I wanted to organize a lot of people in my industry for the long haul," Silver says. The impetus "came out of the Dukakis campaign. A lot of us were feeling very decorative and ornamental. Every electoral cycle we're called up and told, 'Do that' and 'Put your name on this invitation.' We thought we had more to contribute."
And Silver has contributed with flair. Tapped to hand out a prize at the Tony Awards ceremony in New York last June, he seized the opportunity on live, nationwide television to make a speech lauding the NEA for its contributions to the American theater. This unplanned political salvo so outraged the show's producer, Joseph Cates, that he told the audience during a commercial break that Silver's action "does all of us incredible harm."
Silver shrugs, irritated. "People are so afraid to say what they honestly think, make a decision or take sides," he says. "To me, neglect and indifference are states devoutly to be avoided in a democracy."
And there are so many issues. War, for one. "I like the way Bush has handled it up to now," he says. "I must tell you, I think what he organized, particularly in the six to eight weeks right after the invasion, was nothing short of brilliant, the way he mobilized the world community."
That's not all: "I'm doing a show for 1,500 homeless kids," Silver says. "... And reproductive rights are very important. I went to a dinner the other night for Republicans for Choice because, for me, pro-choice is a threshold issue. ... I'm a Democrat, but I'll cross lines. I'm in favor of the death penalty, so is that an anomaly, an aberration, or what? And I think that the federal government withdrawing from areas of concern has not been a totally unhappy circumstance -- throwing a lot of the responsibility back to the states."
It's endless, really.
Of course, like anyone he's entitled to his views, but frankly Silver on acting is a lot more interesting. Describing the difference between acting on stage and on screen, he gets quiet and kind of breathless and then: "It's the immediacy of the stage that I like," he says. "It's the closest thing we have to a secular religion -- and I include in this performances by rock stars, or Liza Minnelli, or Frank Sinatra. You walk into a room. The room is darkened. There's a great deal of anticipation. People quiet down. There's a tremendous amount of respect. And then the priests and priestesses walk out, and then they perform in this ritual, and there's complicity on the part of you, as a spectator, and them, and something live and real is going to happen, and there's the danger that it won't happen, that something will go wrong. There's a great deal of fear, subterranean fear that the actor will forget his lines. It's so vital, and we are so used to everything being packaged."
Across the room, the change of subject causes Thom to breathe an audible sigh of relief.
"If I'm talking about acting," he says, "I can have my massage too. Thom, is there any more coffee?"
Silver is 46 years old, a child of the Vietnam era who spent a great deal of time as a draft-deferred student, long-haired and bearded, traveling around Southeast Asia on a National Defense Fellowship during the late 1960s. "While a lot of my contemporaries and peers were marching and this and that, I was contemplating working for the government," he says. "I was very involved in public policy. I wanted to work in intelligence."
Specifically, for the State Department, Defense or the CIA. He focused on Chinese history, studying at St. John's University, then in Taiwan and Hong Kong. But when he returned to New York, he went to law school for a while and soon lost interest in a public affairs career. "Then I got involved in acting. It was serendipitous. I didn't quite know what to do with myself, and had fooled around with it a little in college. There's a Congreve quote about 'dwindling into acting.' I like the word. I like to get my mouth around that word, dwindling into acting, because I have a sense that that's the way I got involved. I just allowed myself to be swept away."
He began studying with the famous acting teacher Herbert Berghof, and liked it. "It was very different from anything I had contemplated doing," he says. "Everything was the opposite. You would go to work at night, you would rehearse things with girls, it wasn't academic. And there was a kind of sense of bohemianism that was very appealing at the time. I was doing it for fun."
Silver grew up on the Lower East Side, the first of three sons of a clothing salesman and public school teacher who still live in the same apartment where the boys were raised. "My parents weren't the old school, Jewish, left-wing people," he says. "They had nothing to do with those people, they were just making a living." Yet the family values they instilled in him were powerfully ingrained, and today Silver remains happily married after 17 years to his college (State University of New York at Buffalo) sweetheart, magazine editor Lynne Miller -- unusual in this day, and in his line of work, as he points out.
"I don't feel like a big star," he says. "I'm fairly settled down, and we have two beautiful children. My material needs are mostly taken care of, and I don't need, or want, second homes or yachts or planes. I feel very privileged. I'm doing what I want to do. I get a great deal of gratification from it and, according to a lot of people, they get something from it too. I get a lot of time off, and I spend it with my family. I'm only concerned that my children grow up healthy, and that they're kind people, and that they have a sense of self-esteem and make some kind of contribution."
Your normal, everyday guy.
Of course, it's a little different in that he'll bring Madonna (his "Speed-the-Plow" costar) home for dinner in the Westchester County suburbs -- or Carrie Fisher, Paul Simon, Jill Clayburgh and others.
At the same time, he likes to poke fun at the movie star culture, telling reporters that he likes bourbon, cigarettes and red meat. "Thom will tell you, you go out for lunch with 95 percent of people in movies now," he chuckles, "and they'll order a salad, or they'll pick at a fruit plate, or they'll have a piece of carrot bread. They'll never order dessert. And alcohol -- forget it! A white wine spritzer, maybe. Sometimes I tell them my wife has a fur coat, just to get them angry." (She doesn't, he adds.)
Silver's acting career got off to a modest start in 1973 with a supporting role in an off-Broadway farce, "El Grande de Coca-Cola." In the years that followed he was hilarious on television as the boyfriend in "Rhoda" and had minor roles in films such as "Silkwood" and "Best Friends." In 1984 he returned to New York from Los Angeles when director Mike Nichols offered him a stage part in David Rabe's "Hurlyburly."
Madonna was the draw that packed the theater for "Speed-the-Plow," but it was Silver's performance that earned a Tony and a boost toward stardom. Now it seems he's everywhere. "Blue Steel" and "Enemies" both came out last year, and now, with "Reversal of Fortune" opening across the country, he's in New York rehearsing "La Bete," a savage, slapstick comedy about -- as Silver tells it, his voice growing deeply dramatic -- "an acting troupe in France in 1654 about to lose the patronage of the prince unless this acting troupe takes on a new member. And the new member, moi, is a real mountebank, and a vulgarian, and a fraud, and very banal, and very dangerous."
His brown eyes glitter -- this time with fervent intensity. "You get typed so quickly in this business," he says. "I started out doing comedy, and then the TV sitcoms. Then I did a couple of serious roles, and all of a sudden it became this intense urban actor, and I'm still kind of basically that."
In "Reversal," Silver plays the impassioned Harvard lawyer, Dershowitz, who took on the von Bulow defense out of a nearly obsessive belief that everyone, bar none, should get his day in court. Silver is intense in the role, all right, but he also draws on his comedic past, since, as he puts it, the movie is "a kind of satirical high type of comedy."
What this means is that the rich are shown to be laughable fools as well as coldhearted ones. Jeremy Irons as Claus is so grotesque -- particularly his wildly accented voice -- that he barely avoids implausibility. "Jeremy went out on a big limb," Silver says admiringly, "with this kind of mysterious, outrageous, stylized, aloof, ambiguous, devilish portrayal, almost like a caricature."
And Glenn Close's Sunny von Bulow, Silver thinks, "was a jewel, just the most finely etched portrayal of despair and sense of hopelessness amidst all this abundance, and the disjunction between the two. People find it endlessly fascinating, bashing the rich this way -- 'They have all this stuff but oh, they're not happy. Isn't that a relief!' "
He liked working with them because they were "so professional. I like working with people who make it an Olympics every time out." And it's an "old-fashioned movie," he thinks, "an intelligent, adult movie. Old-fashioned in terms of the structure of scenes, of flashbacks, of not relying too much on cinematic gimmickry."
The theater is perhaps a little more like that. "I function better onstage," he says. "I have a lot more autonomy. It's a more simple process. There are less people involved, and usually I have a tremendous respect for the writer and the writer seems to have more input on the stage. We're so used to everything coming out sort of homogenized and manufactured to a degree, that there's something quite sacred and dangerous about the theatrical situation."
Is that why some people don't go to the movies?
"I have a better question," Silver replies. "Why don't I go to the movies? I don't either. I have kids. I'm busy. Going to the movies is not that simple anymore. We don't mind the difference between seeing it on the big screen and on tape. Every time you go, you usually enjoy it. But you don't go."
What a Regular Guy.
He pauses, looks across the room, smiles.
"Just what Thom wanted to hear. But it's true."