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A cool, ominous presence in dramas and action films from the late 1950s through the late 1990s, character actor Henry Silva specialized in playing characters that meant business - often deadly business - in a long and varied list of features that included "Ocean's Eleven" (1960), "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962)," "The Hills Run Red" (1966) and "Above the Law" (1985). Though of European descent, Silva's saturnine features and facility for accents allowed him to be cast as a wide array of ethnicities - from Mexicans and Italians to Native Americans and even Asians. Unlike many other actors who played a diverse range of types - like Frank De Kova or J. Carroll Naish - Silva's personality and talent always rose above the character's limitations, which made him among the hardest working and most recognizable character actors of the late 20th century.Born in Brooklyn, New York on September 15, 1928, he was raised in Harlem by his mother, who was of Spanish descent, not Puerto Rican as was widely attributed in most biographies; his Italian father left the family when Silva was just three months old. Silva's mother was also the inspiration for his decision to become an actor; a natural storyteller, she...
A cool, ominous presence in dramas and action films from the late 1950s through the late 1990s, character actor Henry Silva specialized in playing characters that meant business - often deadly business - in a long and varied list of features that included "Ocean's Eleven" (1960), "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962)," "The Hills Run Red" (1966) and "Above the Law" (1985). Though of European descent, Silva's saturnine features and facility for accents allowed him to be cast as a wide array of ethnicities - from Mexicans and Italians to Native Americans and even Asians. Unlike many other actors who played a diverse range of types - like Frank De Kova or J. Carroll Naish - Silva's personality and talent always rose above the character's limitations, which made him among the hardest working and most recognizable character actors of the late 20th century.
Born in Brooklyn, New York on September 15, 1928, he was raised in Harlem by his mother, who was of Spanish descent, not Puerto Rican as was widely attributed in most biographies; his Italian father left the family when Silva was just three months old. Silva's mother was also the inspiration for his decision to become an actor; a natural storyteller, she regaled her son with her impressions of local scenes and personalities. The experience convinced Silva to pursue the dramatic arts while still in his adolescence, so when he was 13, he dropped out of traditional schooling to take drama classes. To make ends meet, he supported himself as a dishwasher and waiter at a New York hotel.
When he reached his twenties, Silva auditioned for the Actors Studio and was chosen from a group of more than 2,500 applicants. Among his early projects at the Studio was a class production of writer-actor Michael V. Gazzo's controversial play "A Hatful of Rain." The staging - which featured Silva alongside fellow classmates Ben Gazzara, Shelley Winters, Harry Guardino and Anthony Franciosa - proved so powerful that it later traveled to Broadway in 1955 with the student cast largely intact. Silva would reprise his role as the cold-blooded heroin dealer in the 1957 film version, directed by Fred Zinnermann of "High Noon" (1952) fame. By this point, he had already begun to land small roles in films and television, most notably as "Chink," a ruthless killer under the leadership of Richard Boone in Budd Boetticher's gritty Western "The Tall T" (1954). The film, along with "Rain," helped to establish Silva as a Hollywood heavy with a special flair for ethnic types.
He would work along these lines for most of his subsequent film and TV efforts; he was an accused murdered pursued by a vengeful Gregory Peck in "The Bravados" (1958), the arrogant son of an Indian tribal chief (played improbably by Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa) in "Green Mansions" (1959), and all manner of underhanded gunslingers and criminals in live TV dramas and anthologies. However, in 1960, he got a break when he encountered Frank Sinatra while driving on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. An admirer of Silva's work, Sinatra vowed to work with him on a subsequent project, and made good on the promise not once but four times. Their first partnership was "Ocean's Eleven" (1960), which cast Silva as one of the 10 conspirators in a heist to rip off a Las Vegas casino masterminded by Sinatra. He would later reunite with the Chairman of the Board in "Sergeants 3" (1962), a grim comedy remake of "Gunga Din" (1939) with Silva as an Indian warrior, as well as John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), which was arguably their best film together and featured an astonishing martial arts brawl between Sinatra's haunted vet and Silva as his Korean opponent. They would team one last time over a decade later in "Contract on Cherry Street" (NBC, 1977), with Sinatra as a New York detective-turned-vigilante and Silva as a cooler-headed associate. Silva's friendship with Sinatra made him an official member of the "Rat Pack," which in 1960s Hollywood, was the closest thing to royalty one could get. It also resulted in a rare starring role for Silva in "Johnny Cool" (1962), a rarely seen thriller about a calculating Sicilian hit man who wages war against American mobsters. Rat Packers Sammy Davis, Jr. and Joey Bishop had cameos, with Davis also providing the theme song.
With his career buoyant thanks to the Sinatra connection, Silva began landing larger roles as the Sixties wore on. He took the lead in two memorable episodes of "The Outer Limits" (CBS, 1963-65); first as a vicious criminal who is exchanged for a being for another planet and later as a Third World dictator whose regime is brought down by monsters from a lake. He also began adding more heroic roles to his C.V., though in typical fashion, Silva's "good guys" were somewhat morally questionable, including his convicted killer recruited by the Army to rescue an Italian general during World War II in Roger Corman's "The Secret Invasion" (1964). Silva also played the Japanese master detective Mr. Moto in "The Return of Mr. Moto" (1965), a low-budget updating of the venerable franchise.
The following year, Silva was invited to Italy to take a role in "The Hills Run Red" (1966), one of the many "spaghetti Westerns" released in the wake of "Fistful of Dollars" (1964). Silva's performance as a psychotic killer earned him a fanbase in Europe, and for the next few decades, he divided his time between productions there and in America. Silva's Continental efforts gave him more opportunities to take leads in action films, particularly police dramas that cast him as tough detectives and killers who solved problems with their fists and guns. The best of these included "The Italian Connection" (1972), a fast-moving mob picture which teamed him with Woody Strode as a pair of American hit men out to kill rogue Italian gangster Mario Adorf; "Almost Human" (1974), a graphically violent thriller which pitted his relentless inspector against subhuman killer Tomas Milian; and "Cry of the Prostitute" (1974), which borrowed its plot from "Fistful of Dollars" and allowed Silva some love scenes with Barbara Bouchet.
Silva also maintained a regular presence in Stateside projects during the 1970s and 1980s. He took a rare heroic turn as an Apache warrior who helps Michele Carey avenge herself against an evil Keenan Wynn in "The Animals" (1970), and played the intergalactic rogue Killer Kane in "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" (1979), the theatrically-released pilot for the subsequent TV series (NBC, 1979-1981). He earned terrific showcases in two early 1980s films; the first, Lewis Teague's "Alligator" (1980), gave him a rare opportunity to show his comic chops as a big game hunter hired to kill a colossal alligator running amuck in Los Angeles, while Burt Reynolds' "Sharky's Machine" (1981) gave him one of his most alarming roles as a psychotic, drug-addicted killer. He also generated considerable laughs by playing himself as the host of a ridiculous "Ripley's Believe It Or Not"-type show called "Bullshit or Not?" in the sketch comedy film, "Amazon Woman on the Moon" (1987).
After that, Silva bounced between Italian efforts and a string of B- and C-grade action films, with occasional returns to more substantial fare. The best of the latter included the Chuck Norris crime picture "Code of Silence" (1985); "Above the Law" (1988), Steven Seagal's first and best feature; the hypnotic gunman Influence in Warren Beatty's big budget "Dick Tracy" (1990); and an oily Mexican detective in the underrated thriller, "The Harvest" (1992). Silva also began lending his voice to the savage, masked South American criminal Bane in a series of animated "Batman" series, including "Batman: The Animated Series" (Fox, 1992-95). A rare respite from the seemingly endless parade of hoods, gangsters and other cruel types was Wim Wenders' "The End of Violence" (1997), which cast him as the head of a proud family of Mexican gardeners.
Silva's film output slowed as he entered his seventh decade, but there was still a rich role or two in the works for the veteran performer. Director Jim Jarmusch, who admired Silva's long and storied career, cast him as a mournful Italian gangster in his offbeat crime film "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" (1999). And in 2001, he and Angie Dickinson - two of the surviving members of the original "Ocean's Eleven" cast - were given a respectful cameo as themselves in the 2001 remake with George Clooney and Brad Pitt.
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