There’s a certain Schrödingerian honor in being That Guy. You both are and are not a “star,” depending on who’s watching, but you nonetheless get hired for films and TV shows because you’re recognizable, you’re dependable, and damned if you can’t play a certain kind of role to the hilt. And maybe you can leave a subconscious mark on the audience while you’re at it.
For instance, not many actors can stand up to some hard-smackin’, punch-blockin’, cold-cockin’ Sinatra Fu.
Born in 1928, Henry Silva is among those ethnically-indeterminate actors (e.g. Anthony Quinn) who scored first in generic villain roles, but also carried enough dramatic strength to lend shades and nuance to their characters. It didn’t hurt that he had, in the words of one fan, “a face that looks like it could kill you all on its own.”
“I got typecast as a heavy. There’s no reason in the world for me to be a heavy, none. People love to put handles on you. They’re not thinking about you, they’re thinking about themselves. You have to be creative or else; if you’re creative, then they’ll go with you, but they want the easy way out.”
Silva learned that creativity at the Actors Studio, as part of the graduating class that included Ben Gazzara and Shelley Winters. Hollywood wanted him from the moment he stepped on a Broadway stage: he had a lean and hungry look that could easily bespeak pain and menace. Something in his face also made him hard to pin down in those racially blinkered times; his first notable film character, in Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T (1957), was an unflappable killer named Chink.
The crime thriller, noir or otherwise, is the Western of the city. Silva slotted in here and looked as much at home, if not more so. His first top-billed role, Johnny Cool (1963), finds him killing his way through a mafioso’s enemies list. En route, he’s held at shotgun-point by fellow That Guy and Manchurian Candidate co-star John McGiver, and given a lesson in the antihero story arc by standup legend Mort Sahl.
If you’re going to work in Westerns in the 1960s, why not go where they made Westerns the right way? Silva uprooted for Italy, racking up above-the-title credits in Carlo Lizzani’s The Hills Run Red (1966), Emilio Miraglia’s mod crime thriller Assassination (1967), and others.
His face and form hover over 1970s-’80s television as well. IMdB puts him at 138 credited appearances in film and TV, but I think that’s an undercount. One of the first Silva roles that really gripped me was hit man (natch) Billy Score in Sharky’s Machine (1981), a Burt Reynolds-directed semi-exploitation vehicle, ably dissected by Matt Zoller Seitz in his 2008 video essay. (Notice that Reynolds cast the hell out of this one, with a long roster of dependable character actors.) As Seitz puts it, Silva plays the part as “a coke fiend who screams bloody murder before he commits it.”
The tough guy has assembled geek cred too, in SF flotsam like Megaforce, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Cy Warrior, and Quark. And as if crafting live-action villains weren’t enough, he gave voice to a major comic-book baddie as well. Trust Henry Silva to always do the wrong thing.
What else is going on: Over at Film Freak Central, I wrote about Mars Attacks! (1996) on Blu-ray.