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Voices -- Ron Silver, 1946 - 2009

March 16, 2009 |  7:29 am


Ron Silver on the Price of Activism

June 7, 1992

By BARBARA ISENBERG, Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer

Step into Ron Silver's dressing room backstage at the Hollywood Playhouse. There's a black binder lying open on the dressing table; it's packed with clippings on health care. A baseball hat with Chinese lettering rests alongside a book--"Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace"--and nearby is a pamphlet called "Curing U.S. Health Care Ills."

Hardly the light reading one would expect from an actor taking on a 90-minute, one-man show. But neither the actor nor the show--"and" by journalist Roger Rosenblatt--is predictable Hollywood fare.

Silver, at 45, is president of Actors' Equity and won a Tony for his stage performance as slick movie producer Charlie Fox in David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow." He played the intense lawyer Alan Dershowitz in the film "Reversal of Fortune" and the hapless Holocaust survivor with three wives in "Enemies: A Love Story."

Rosenblatt's play, which opens Wednesday, is a complex monologue about writing, dreams and compromise. Its unnamed hero is a journalist who reflects on risk-taking; journalism is too easy for him, too insignificant. The play ran in New York for a month earlier this year but has been considerably rewritten.

It is a story that, in many ways, was written for Silver. Although playwright and actor did not know each other before, they connected through the words. They fit Silver, he says, and Silver, says Rosenblatt, fit the story.

"The one quality the play required above everything else, since it's a man talking to himself, is a man who is persuasively very smart," says Rosenblatt, editor-at-large of Life magazine. "He can't be acting. Apart from Ron's enormous range of acting skills, you have the sense of a very deep, comprehensive brooding intelligence."

A Chinese history scholar turned actor and political activist, Silver does not hide his passions. From fighting for National Endowment for the Arts funding in Washington, D.C. to reminding the Tony Awards audience last Sunday that "AIDS affects us all," Silver is among his profession's most articulate and committed spokesmen.

Silver founded and heads the Creative Coalition, a star-studded roster of actor-activists who advocate reform or other action on such issues as the NEA, national health care, the environment, the homeless and reproductive rights.

The actor has three films awaiting release, but meanwhile there's the challenge of playing Rosenblatt's writer each evening through June 28. "This is real mano-a-mano, " Silver says. "Your mind can't wander for a moment. There's nobody out there to help you."

Question: What was your initial reaction to "and"?

Answer: It was just about love at first sight. The fit was very very comfortable. The rhythms and the words seem very much my own--almost like an organic extension of myself. I connected with the material, the text, what I thought it was saying.

At first glance it's a very specific story about the writer not wanting to do what he has done before and wanting to write something else. But it's also about somebody trying to get back and discover what is really in his heart. Where do those dreams go when you're a kid? Why does nothing ever turn out as dreamed?

Q: Did you dream of becoming an actor? You've said in the past that you dwindled into it? What do you mean?

A: It's a paraphrase of (William) Congreve, who has a line in a play where somebody dwindled into marriage. I imagine many people do that as well. I didn't wake up and say, 'Mom, I have to be on the stage.' It just never quite happened like that.

I went to graduate school in Chinese history and when I was (in Taiwan) studying, I traveled to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam . . . It was almost an extended adolescence. It was very adventuresome and I had done things that horrify me in retrospect. And when I got back in 1970, I didn't want to work in government, so I got the MA in Chinese history (at St. Johns University in Queens) and was a social worker for a year. I didn't know quite what I was doing.

I started taking acting classes because I had fooled around with it in college and I had received some encouragement and liked it. There was a diversity of people that I had not come into contact with before. And there was something very unorthodox about the whole group. While everybody else was going home and having dinner, these people were going out to rehearsal. I did it basically as a hobby, as a lark. But I received a great deal of encouragement from Herbert Berghof and later Lee Strasberg. I don't know how tenacious I might have been if I had many years of not working and just taking classes.

(I went to Los Angeles with "El Grande de Coca Cola") and then I started to do TV. And slowly it dawned on me this is what I do and I really want to be good and take it seriously.

I think most people don't have dramatic epiphanies. Most people I know go through their lives, and what is charming about most of my friends is that they don't change. They're predictable. But every time you see some sort of artistic enterprise, people are having these revelations about life. In 22 minutes on a sitcom, 49 minutes on an hour show and an hour and 53 minutes in a movie, people have these extraordinary revelations that change their lives overnight. What I like about most of the people I know is they've been doing the same thing for 30 years; they never change.

Q: But you seem to change, to play different roles in life. Does your activism, for instance, influence your choice of roles on stage?

A: There are only so many good scripts and so many movies and there are so many people ahead of me that it's not a matter of my choosing. I wish it were. But it's not. It's interesting to me when a journalist asks an actor, "but why did you do that?" If you're Jack Nicholson or Tom Cruise, that question makes sense. But for 75% of the actors who are doing well, you kind of know why you did it--because it was offered to you or it was the best thing available to you.

I'm an actor by calling, and I'm an activist by inclination but I try not to confuse the two. Maybe if I had more integrity I would confuse the two more and integrate them more. I don't make judgments based on that.

Q: Where does that sense of social responsibility come from?

A: Everybody comes to their political commitments in a different way. For me, there is no individual redemption--for there to be salvation, it has to happen as an individual in the community.

This seems particularly appropriate today. Individual needs have become so rampant that the sense of community has suffered, and we obviously have to find our way back. And I think that's a pretty apt model for improving things today. I just feel that it's less than a whole life not to try to involve yourself and to give something back. I can't feel whole when I'm surrounded by injustices.

I've always been politically engaged. Sometimes the acting in a strange way can be very removed from the real world. It can be such an obsession with yourself and your own truths . . . that it can kind of make you a little detached and aloof from what's going on around you. So it's always been very gratifying for me to be involved.

Basically I'm trying to be useful. It comes down to that. But 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.

Q: Is that what led to your founding the Creative Coalition?

A: It came out of the (Michael) Dukakis campaign actually. There was a group of celebrities coming back from Queens after a Dukakis rally and on the bus we were talking--Christine Lahti, Susan Sarandon and all sorts of other people.

I was receiving literature from two groups on the West Coast--the Hollywood Women's Political Committee and Show Coalition--and I asked why there wasn't an industrywide network for political education in New York as well. There seemed to be a general frustration that celebrities are just used ornamentally, to raise funds and to put their names on invitations or attract crowds.

We had a power--whether we deserve to have that power or not was a very arguable proposition, but we did. So how could we use it responsibly? We just felt adding our voices together and having an organization behind us would give us access to information and people and we could educate ourselves about the political process.

Q: You're also now president of Actors' Equity, the actors' union. How did that come about?

A: I was on Equity's Council when (the musical) "Miss Saigon" was going to play on Broadway with Jonathan Pryce in the role of a Eurasian pimp, and Actors' Equity members protested that decision. I saw the possibilities for leadership in a sensitive area. I like taking responsibility, and here was a situation where there were two fundamental principles at stake. One was the redress of grievances about minority members who had been denied equal opportunity and access to roles--even to the extent that roles specifically written for them were denied them. The other was the unfettered artistic autonomy that creative people in this business must enjoy. (Former Equity president) Colleen Dewhurst also snookered me into (the presidency). Colleen asked me to go out to dinner one night and she more or less wanted to know what I thought about possibly succeeding her. And I think the reason Colleen suggested me and the nominating committee nominated me is that they wanted a very activist person at the helm who was willing to attempt changing long-established patterns.

I was also very interested in the health care issue because it's affecting Equity as much as it is any other organization. It's had a particularly devastating effect upon Equity because of the extraordinary incidence of AIDS in our community. (It's had) a catastrophic effect on the union's finances and viability of its health care plan and it even endangered to some extent its pension plan. And it's all very, very sad. But again it has relevance in terms of the larger society. The health care situation is not affecting simply Equity. It's affecting everybody.

Q: Have you ever thought of running for a political office?

A: And lose whatever influence I now have? Nobody would ever listen to me again.