Actor Ron Silver, who won a Tony Award as a take-no-prisoners Hollywood producer in David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow” and did a political about-face from loyal Democrat to Republican activist after the Sept. 11 attacks, died Sunday at the age of 62.
“Ron Silver died peacefully in his sleep with his family around him early Sunday morning” in New York City, said Robin Bronk, executive director of the Creative Coalition, which Silver helped found. “He had been fighting esophageal cancer for two years.”
Silver, an Emmy nominee for a recurring role as a slick strategist for liberal President Jed Bartlet on “The West Wing,” had a long history of balancing acting with left-leaning social and political causes.
But after the 2001 terrorist attacks, longtime Democrat Silver turned heads in Hollywood with outspoken support of President George W. Bush over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Silver spoke on Bush’s behalf at the 2004 Republican National Convention, began referring to himself as a “9/11 Republican” and reregistered as an independent.
“Under the unwavering leadership of President Bush, the cause of freedom and democracy is being advanced by the courageous men and women serving in our armed services,” Silver said at the Republican convention. “The president is doing exactly the right thing. That is why we need this president at this time.”
In an interview with The Associated Press a month later, Silver said his support for the war on terror was costing him work in liberal-minded Hollywood.
“It’s affected me very badly. I can’t point to a person or a job I’ve lost, but this community is not very pluralistic,” Silver told the AP. “I haven’t worked for 10 months.”
His switch to a more conservative image threatened to overshadow an esteemed career on stage, television and film, along with his long history of activism, which included co-founding the nonpartisan Creative Coalition, an advocacy group for entertainers.
“He was a talented actor, a scholar and a great believer in participatory democracy,” Bronk said Sunday evening. “He was an activist who became a great artist and his contributions will never be forgotten.”
His big-screen credits included “Ali,” ”Reversal of Fortune,” ”Enemies: A Love Story,” ”Silkwood” and “Semi-Tough.”
Besides “The West Wing,” Silver was a regular or had recurring roles on such TV shows as “Veronica’s Closet,” ”Chicago Hope” and “Wiseguy.” He directed and costarred in the 1993 TV movie “Lifepod,” a science-fiction update of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat.”
Silver’s Tony for “Speed-the-Plow” came in 1988, a year after he earned his first Emmy nomination, for the murder thriller “Billionaire Boys Club.”
Silver did still find work despite his conservative shift, appearing in episodes of “Law & Order” and “Crossing Jordan” and such movies as “Find Me Guilty” and the Ten Commandments comedy “The Ten.”
He continued his recurring role on “The West Wing,” joking that he faced some taunting over his views from co-workers on the show that took place in a fiercely liberal White House administration.
“Often when I walked onto the set of ‘The West Wing’ some of my colleagues would greet me with a chanting of ‘Ron, Ron, the neo-con.’ It was all done in fun but it had an edge,” Silver wrote in a Nov. 15, 2007, entry of his blog on the Pajamas Media Web site. “Since speaking in support of George Bush at the 2004 Republican convention I’ve become increasingly disadmired by members of my profession as well as many others.”
Silver’s on-screen work rankled liberals, too. He narrated 2004’s “Fahrenhype 9/11,” a deconstruction of Michael Moore’s Bush-bashing hit documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
“Michael Moore and that faction of the party was one of the factors that did not let me support the Democratic nominee this year,” Silver told the AP in 2004. “He is a charlatan in a clown suit.”
On his blog, Silver described his politics as a “little bit to the right of the left of center” and said that his opinions on U.S. foreign policy “haven’t changed very much from what they’ve always been — what I would call revolutionary liberalism.
“I have always resisted reactionaries from the left or right, Democrat or Republican. At the moment, the reactionary forces on the left … are more fearful to me than the traditional reactionary forces of the extreme right. And the Democratic Party seems to be listening to them.”
On screen, Silver’s roles spanned the political gamut, from ultraconservative Henry Kissinger in the 1995 TV movie “Kissinger and Nixon” to ultraliberal Alan Dershowitz in 1990’s “Reversal of Fortune.”
Silver underwent a memorable transformation for the 2001 TV movie “When Billie Beat Bobby,” disguising himself behind black-rimmed glasses and bushy sideburns to play Bobby Riggs in his notorious 1970s tennis match against Billie Jean King (Holly Hunter).
Born July 2, 1946, in New York City, he was the son of Irving and May Silver. His father worked in New York’s garment industry and his mother was a teacher.
Earning a bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo and a master’s degree in Chinese history from St. John’s University, Silver also studied drama at the Herbert Berghof Studio and the Actors Studio.
In the 1970s, he gradually moved from theater work in New York City into television and film, his early credits including “The Mac Davis Show,” ”Rhoda” and “The Stockard Channing Show.”
Silver and ex-wife Lynne Miller had a son, Adam, and daughter, Alexandra.
Once recruited as a CIA apprentice, Silver maintained an interest in politics, international affairs and social causes throughout his life.
Besides founding the Creative Coalition, Silver served as president of the Actor’s Equity Association, was appointed in the late 1990s by then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to head New York City’s Millennium Committee and was appointed by Bush to the board of directors for the U.S. Institute of Peace.
No matter on which end of the political spectrum his activism fell, Silver viewed such involvement as something of a duty for entertainers.
“I think there’s almost an obligation,” Silver said in a 1991 interview with the AP. “Many of us are very well compensated for work which a lot of people would love to do. And we also have a lot of leisure time in between jobs. …
“They say that Hollywood is sex without substance, and Washington is substance without sex, so maybe the marriage of the two is mutually intriguing.”