There is this Puerto Rican, Italian- American man in New York, washing dishes and doing other odd jobs while auditioning for an acting role anywhere, anyplace or, for hope against hope, a tryout at the Actor’s Studio. He has a memorable face, smallish eyes, high cheekbones and a ready smile and a wild laugh that can be charming and disarming or…if he wants, to be chilling and deeply dangerous.
There is this young man who studies at the Actor’s Studio, landing the part of a drug pusher (in the production of “A Hat Full of Rain,”) who has his hooks into the protagonist, and in this movie, his first, his character’s name is Mother, and he is the one who lingers with you when the story ends.
There is this Korean spy who bedevils Frank Sinatra in the “Manchurian Candidate” and, with Frank, gives so many of us the very first karate fight we’ve ever seen, and it is strange and powerful and thoroughly believable.
There is this Mexican farmer in a strong scene that pits him against Marlon Brando in “Viva Zapata,” and he holds his own. And then, as one of the coolest of the cool, who call themselves “Ocean’s Eleven,” he is part of the group, and, soon, part of the ‘Rat Pack’ itself, friends that hang with Sinatra and Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. and the rest.
Then, playing a Mexican again, a bandit, he gets the best of his pursuer, Gregory Peck, in the dark and powerful “The Bravados” but does not kill him. He talks to Peck, simply, believably, and shows that he is not the killer Peck thought he was. Oh yeah, then in a movie in the early eighties, he plays a strange and dynamic Italian hit man who is sought and chased and finally killed by Burt Reynolds in “Sharky’s Machine” and that’s when, as the screenwriter, I met all of these men who are one man: the actor Henry Silva.
When you get to know Henry you laugh a lot. You can’t help it because of his great comic energy and the way he embraces life, and none of this is acting. He’s never ‘on’. He’s a deep, loving friend who is also unpredictable and joyous to the point when, at one of our many dinners out, as we talked about, for some reason, jungles, Henry began, at full voice, mimicking the sounds of jungle birds. He didn’t do this to be noticed, just to have fun.
He’s sorry, and I’m sorry, that he never got to play the part of some ‘normal’ guy having fun, or some normal guy doing anything except threatening or hurting or killing someone. It’s the fault of the cheekbones, the planes of that striking and strange face.
He is fluent in Italian and Spanish, and went to Europe hoping to change is image, but was cast as what? A guy named “Johnny Cool,” who, at least, was the star of the film, but…there he is in the poster, holding a machinegun.
He did his share of spaghetti westerns, too, usually as a Mexican, once as an Apache! – and has played Arabs, also. But my best memory of him (he’s retired and 91 now) came at the Christmas parties my wife Chris and I used to throw when we lived in Santa Monica. A certain spot on the couch was always saved for Henry and his girlfriend, Wendy, and no matter how full the house became, the center of the laughter was always around Henry on the couch.
As they grew, my sons, Justin and Zachary, got to know him through these parties, and now we speak of him often and get together to screen his movies, watching that guy from New York, the dishwasher with the dream, being everybody-- except himself, but having fun and throwing that great energy of his into the make-believe.
Here’s to Henry