I spent a bit of my free time this holiday reviewing about 30 different lists of “best movies of 2012” and I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking this….but most of them suck. Two of the websites who formulated lists had reviewed the current big screen version of Les Mis as barely one step above bird droppings yet both of them later listed it on their top ten list. Seeing the films that have been cranked out of the International film-factory has made me pine not for the smaller, independent films, but rather films that have been populated by personality….not cookie-cutter arch-types with negligible on screen presence. I get bored and angry and realize finally that today we have “Celebrities” and back then we had, “MOVIE STARS”. Don’t see many of those around these days….*sigh*
As I mentioned in the last post, sometimes mediocre films become great and great films become unforgettable because of the participation of “the little people”, the side players that so often bring great personality to films and make the “big stars” look huge. I have a soft spot for those guys, especially if they have charm, personality and presence. My last post was on Vic McGlaglen. An actor who had all of the above. Today I want to re-acquaint you with another such actor. Meet:
Henry Silva –
Name not familiar? Well it should be because there is a genre connection to Henry as well as a classical one. Henry was born in Brooklyn in November of 1928. As of this writing he is still with us today and in good health. (Such as that is at a butt-crack below 85.) Like so many of his generation, what Mr. Brokow called “the greatest generation”, Henry dropped out of school early. He was 13. He took up work as a dish-washer and later as a waiter to earn a living. In 1955 Henry auditioned for the prestigious Actor’s Studio and was accepted. In 1955 there were more than 2500 actors making application to attend and only five were selected. Henry was among them. Like so many others, Henry graduated the prestigious school and went on to appear in all manner of plays with peers that would go on to find their own measure of fame. some of the early performers Henry worked and rose with include: Ben Gazzara, Harry Guardino and Shelly Winters. If you’ll recall, Harry G starred opposite Clint Eastwood in the first Dirty Harry film…I digress.
Early on in his career, Henry’s presence and exceptional voice made him a popular choice to play the heavy in mob pictures, westerns and other “action” dramas. Being part Sicilian and part Spanish would also play a major role in Henry’s film career but more on that in just a moment. In the mid 1950’s shortly after a certain blue-eyed, oscar winning crooner met him and befriended him, Henry’s career truly blossomed. In 1960, Henry was cast as Roger Corneal, former member of the 82d airborne in Lewis Milestone’s original ( and still BEST) Ocean’s 11 opposite Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis. The amount of fun the cast and crew had making this picture often outshines the picture itself and Henry soon became a lifelong friend of both Sinatra and Dean Martin. After E-O 11, Henry again co-starred with Sinatra in the brilliant Manchurian Candidate. In another film role he had during those years he starred as one of Jerry Lewis’s evil step brothers in “Cinderfella” – one of Jerry’s first film roles after splitting with long time business partner Dean Martin. Cinderfella garnered good reviews and good box office further helping to seal Henry’s position as supporting player.
As the 60’s rolled on, Henry discovered television as a way to enhance his presence and he appeared on many genre television programs in some very memorable roles including: Voyage To The Bottom of the Sea, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and what many consider to be the bastard step-child of The Twilight Zone – Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. What really changed Henry’s “hollywood” fortunes though was very similar to what happened to Clint Eastwood.
In 1965, an Italian film producer who had been impressed by Henry’s looks and voice, offered him his first major lead role in a western they were filming in Spain. (Sound familiar?) The Hills Run Red was an amazing box office hit in Europe, particularly Spain, Italy, Germany and France. Oddly, the film was not as widely regarded here as Eastwood’s A Fistful of Dollars.
In any case, between 1966 and 1977 Henry starred in upwards of 25 major European films in leading or very prominent roles and he secured for himself wealth, fame and a very loyal following. He returned to America in 1977 because an old friend asked him to appear in one of his last films. Yes, It was Frank Sinatra who enticed Henry to come back and appear with him in the film, Contract on Cherry Street, a crime drama made for NBC and shown on TV. The film and re-connecting with old friends convinced Henry to give the States another shot. Genre fans might be glad he did because after Cherry street wrapped, Henry was offered the role of “Killer Kane” (later just Kane) in a new movie adaptation of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. When the pilot movie was picked up as an actual series, Henry wasn’t available to take the role on permanantly so another “old friend” took the role in the series. That actor was Michael Ansara who some would know as the one time husband of actress Barbara (I Dream of Jeannie) Eden.
In the early 80’s Henry hit his “peak” of big American films starring opposite Burt Reynolds in Sharkey’s Machine, and a “villainous” CIA agent opposite Steven Seagal in Above The Law. and most lavishly as a mob hitman opposite Warren Beatty in Dick Tracy. One of Henry’s most enjoyable films was something of a box office blunder that like the original Ocean’s 11, was more fun to make than to actually watch. Henry played a mobster out to get Charles Nelson Reilly in Hal Needham’s 1984 Opus, Cannonball Run II. This film, like Ocean’s had a huge ensemble cast including Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Charles Nelson Reilly and a hundred other stars including: Jackie Chan, Don Knotts, Tony Danza, Tim Conway…..ad infinitem.
Henry is essentially retired today but he is still with us and his film legacy lives on, bringing fond memories to me every time I see him. In fact, I recently saw an old “Rat Pack” film entitled Sergeant’s 3 where Silva played a marauding Indian giving Frank, Dean and Sammy all sorts of fits. Check out some of Henry’s films and when you do, say hello to my old friend.
Henry C. 1973
Henry Silva and Dean Martin in Sergeant’s 3 – c. 1962
Henry Silva as Kane in Buck Rogers c. 1979