Actor Ron Silver dies at 62

Emmy nominee was in 'West Wing,' 'Fortune'

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 age 62.

"Ron Silver died peacefully in his sleep with his family around him early Sunday morning" in New York, 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 at the 2004 Republican National Convention, began referring to himself as a "9/11 Republican" and reregistered as an independent.

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 night. "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 co-starred 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 still found 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 which 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.

Silver's onscreen 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."

Born July 2, 1946, in New York, 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 studied drama at the Herbert Berghof Studio and the Actors Studio.

In the 1970s, he gradually moved from theater work in New York into television and film. His early credits included "The Mac Davis Show," "Rhoda" and "The Stockard Channing Show."

Silver and ex-wife Lynne Miller had a son, Adam, and daughter, Alexandra.

Whichever 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," he 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."

An appreciation of Ron Silver, performer and politician

By Andrew Salomon, Back Stage

Ron Silver, the Tony Award-winning actor and former Equity president noted for his eloquence, outspokenness and independence in the political realm, died Sunday of esophageal cancer. He was 62.

Equity national president Mark Zimmerman and national executive director John Connolly were quick to praise Silver, who won a Tony for best actor in a play in 1988 for his performance in David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow."

"Our hearts and condolences go out to Ron's family at this time," Zimmerman said in an Equity release. "During his presidency, he was a strong, vocal advocate for the role that the arts play in society and supported innovative partnerships between government and the art. The officers and council are deeply saddened at his passing."

Connolly added: "We've lost a lion in his prime. Ron held our banner high with deft humanity and his razor-sharp ability to deliver complex dialogue in a clarion-clear staccato. He was an actor's actor."

Although Silver distinguished himself as an actor, his life was defined as much by politics as performance, if not more so. A quote attributed to him on reads: "By inclination, I am more of a politician than I am an actor. I care more about public policy. I care more about pro-choice, the environment, homelessness and nuclear issues than I do about any part."

Silver, long known for his liberal advocacy on such issues as abortion, the environment, homelessness and nuclear power, startled political establishments from Hollywood to Washington when he enthusiastically endorsed President George W. Bush and addressed the Republican National Convention in 2004. Silver shifted politically after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and his speech reflected his outrage:

"Just over 1,000 days ago, 2,605 of my neighbors were murdered at the World Trade Center -- men, women and children -- as they began their day on a brilliantly clear New York autumn morning, less than four miles from where I am now standing. We will never forgive. Never forget. Never excuse!"

Silver worked in a profession larded with caricatures of dilettante ideologues and drive-by activism. Although those could be applied to some in Hollywood, they never applied to Silver, who had a master's degree in Chinese studies, was member of the Council on Foreign relations and in the fall addressed Britain's House of Commons on issues ranging from American-British relations, nuclear proliferation and the resurgence of Russia as a global power.

One gets the impression that Silver didn't shift his politics as much as he stayed true to a fiercely independent streak. In an interview in the fall with the Jewish Community Online, he said: "Sometimes people don't like my positions but I've learned to live with that. As long as I can live with them, that's all I care about."