Actor Henry Silva, one of screen’s scariest villains, who died at the age of 95, once complained: “I’ve been branded as fat. There’s no reason in the world for me to be heavy, none. People love to put handles on you. They don’t think of you, they think of themselves.
Nonetheless, Silva’s dark, sepulchral looks almost invariably portrayed him as a villain and, given Hollywood stereotypes, “foreign-looking” evil types. Silva oozed threat on screen, like a cobra ready to strike. Generally, he appeared stern and taciturn, but he was never more dangerous than when he smiled or laughed.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Henry was the son of a Spanish mother, Angela Martinez, and an Italian father, Jesus Silva. He claimed he was eight years old when he decided to become an actor. Her inspiration was above all her mother who, on her return from shopping, imitated the shopkeepers and the people she had met. Henry left school to take acting classes, supporting himself as a dishwasher and then a waiter at a Manhattan hotel.
Finally, in his twenties, he auditioned for the famed Actors Studio and was one of five students chosen from over 2,500 applicants.
In 1953, he appeared in a small role on Broadway in Elia Kazan’s production of Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real. The previous year, Kazan had given Silva a small role as a Mexican peasant in Viva Zapata!
When the Studio staged Michael V Gazzo’s drug addiction play, A Hatful of Rain, as a class project, it proved such a hit that it went to Broadway, where it was lasted almost a year from November 1955.
Opposite fellow Actors Studio students Ben Gazzara, Shelley Winters and Anthony Franciosa as a drug addict, his wife and his brother respectively, Silva played a malevolent drug dealer known as Mother . Only he and Franciosa rehearsed their roles for the 1957 Fred Zinnemann film version.
But it wasn’t long before Silva established himself as a ruthless villain, mostly in Westerns, beginning with Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T (1957), in which, as Richard Boone’s psychopathic henchman called Chink, wearing a pink shirt and suspenders, he threatens Randolph Scott. He played a similar role, this time as Richard Widmark’s henchman, in John Sturges’ The Law and Jake Wade (1958), explaining that his father was the first man he killed.
He caused problems for Gregory Peck in The Bravados (1958), Audie Murphy in Ride a Crooked Trail (1958), and Jeff Chandler in The Jayhawkers (1959). As the son of the tribal leader, Kua-Ko, in the jungles of Venezuela, he threatens to kill Audrey Hepburn as Rima, the Bird Girl, in Green Mansions (1959), because he sees her as an evil spirit.
Meanwhile, Silva had become a subsidiary member of the so-called Hollywood Rat Pack, led by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr, which he joined in Ocean’s 11 (1960), as the one of the robberies. (Silva made an appearance in the 2001 remake.)
This was followed by Sergeants 3 (1962) with the title roles taken by Sinatra, Martin and Lawford. Silva played Mountain Hawk, a Native American leader who wishes to unite all tribes to slaughter every horseman in sight. The film was a comic remake of Gunga Din set in the Wild West, but Silva played it straight.
There was very little to laugh about in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), in which, as a traitorous Korean gentleman, Silva puts up a formidable martial arts fight with Sinatra. A year later, Silva got his first billing star in Johnny Cool, as a Sicilian mobster sent to the United States to take down several seemingly respectable men who betrayed his boss.
In Roger Corman’s World War II film The Secret Invasion (1964), a precursor to The Dirty Dozen, Silva has the appropriate composure, despite being on the side of the Allies. Finally, disguised as a Nazi, he shoots down an Italian Fascist general in front of his troops.
Then, after Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in Italy and spaghetti westerns, Silva found himself a big star in Europe after The Hills Run Red (1966), in which he played a creepy Mexican villain dressed in black leather. For the next two decades, Silva earned a good living playing various mafia types in strings of Italian gangster movies, while also appearing regularly on American television (he was Kane, the hero’s nemesis, in Buck Rogers at the 25th century), and several Hollywood action films.
Among his most memorable roles was his junkie hitman in Sharky’s Machine (1981), which has a confrontation with a tough cop, played by Burt Reynolds. In the Chuck Norris film Code of Silence (1985), Silva uttered the following lines with delight: “Someday I’d like to give you a Colombian tie. It’s very special. You slit your throat, stick out your tongue, and on you it would look beautiful.
Jim Jarmusch skillfully used Silva in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), in which, in one of his last film roles, as a gang leader, he almost pastiche himself.
Silva has been married and divorced three times. He is survived by two sons, Scott and Michael.
Henry Silva, actor, born September 23, 1926; passed away on September 14, 2022