Rejected by Rhoda, Undone by Madonna, Ron Silver Becomes the Screen's Unlikely Lothario

UPDATED 05/07/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/07/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT

He's about as muscular as Woody Allen and only slightly more handsome. In recent stage and screen appearances, he has played a sleazy producer (Speed-the-Plow), a wimpy womanizer (Enemies, A Love Story) and—in his current movie—a psychopathic killer (Blue Steel). So what is it about Ron Silver that has catapulted him into the spotlight as America's newest leading man? Well, try brains—Silver is gifted with true intellect—and gentle charm that combine into a sneaky kind of sex appeal. "Only Ron Silver could play an incorrigible womanizer and still be endearing," says onetime co-star Madonna. "In other words, he's dangerous."

A man of subtle danger was exactly what Blue Steel director Kathryn Bigelow was looking for. She needed an actor with the interior depths to play a Wall Street trader who develops homicidal urges after seeing rookie cop Jamie Lee Curtis shoot a suspect. She chose Silver. "It was important to cast somebody who had not played a bad guy in a movie before," says Bigelow. "I found Ron to be all the character needed to be—someone who is very charming and who has a very complicated hidden agenda."

Concealment comes naturally to Silver, who has often hidden his talents, in some ways literally—under a bushel of a beard. "When I first started acting, people would tell me that if I had the beard I was limiting myself," says Silver, 43, fingering his scruffy new model. "But I kind of like the way I look in a beard." The post-hippie image, though, did seem to relegate him to playing the volatile ethnic (the Bulgarian place-kicker in Semi-Tough) or annoying boy next door (Valerie Harper's TV series Rhoda).

Silver's big break came with a twist of irony. In 1988 he won a Tony for his portrayal of the sabotaged producer Charlie Fox in David Mamet's savage Hollywood expose, Speed-the-Plow. But while Silver walked away with the kudos, it was his co-star, Madonna, who packed the Broadway theater every night. "Most of the audience was there to see her," Silver admits. "But I was thrilled. Here I was with a wonderful part in a wonderful play, and all this attention was being focused on the play because of Madonna."

Soon enough Ron was doing what he did with most of his co-stars—bringing Madonna home for a relaxed dinner with the family. Silver and his wife, Lynne Miller, 43, a contributing editor at Self magazine, are especially noted for their Passover Seders, which, over the years, in New York City and in their current Westchester County home, have attracted performers Joe Mantegna, Jill Clayburgh, Carrie Fisher and Paul Simon and agent Sam Cohn and, two years ago, Madonna.

The all-star guest lists notwithstanding, the gatherings chez Silver simply underline the actor's dedication to traditional family life. He moved to suburban Westchester two years ago so that his 11-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter could stay out of any developing spotlight.

His own childhood, though less comfortable, was equally family-oriented. "I get so bored talking about myself," says Silver, pausing a moment to think of ways to embellish his early life. "I'd like to say I was born in India—make it Calcutta. Then I moved to Manhattan's Lower East Side—which was a step up." In truth, Silver is a fifth-generation Lower East Sider whose parents, Irving, a retired clothing salesman, and Mae, a public school teacher, still live in the same apartment that Ron and his two younger brothers, Mitchell and Keith, moved into when he was 15. The closest anyone in the Silver family got to showbiz was his paternal grandmother, who once ushered at the nearby Loew's Commodore theater.

When Silver shuffled off to Buffalo and the State University of New York in 1963, it was to study politics and languages, not acting. "I grew up 30 blocks south of the United Nations," he says, explaining his choice. "I was unbelievably impressed by that." He graduated with a degree in Spanish and Chinese, then went on to graduate studies in Spain and Taiwan. He toyed with the idea of working for the State Department—or the CIA. "In the back of my mind it was something kind of romantic," he says. "But to be my age in 1968-69 and want to work for the CIA was kind of perverse."

Silver, who escaped the Vietnam War on a student deferment, traveled throughout Asia on a work-study program. But the changing terrain did not erase thoughts of a college girlfriend, Lynne, who was doing social work in New York City. After he wrote her an impassioned letter from China, the couple staged a reunion in Athens and shortly after, Silver followed her to New York and began a halfhearted search for employment. He tested his teaching skills and also tried social work, while vaguely following up his college stage experience by taking acting lessons at night. Lynne, meanwhile, went in for some more exotic moonlighting: She hired out as a belly-dancer at banquets and clubs. "Ron would come along and act as my bouncer," says Lynne. "He could really dress the part."

In 1973 Silver landed a role as a fifth-rate impresario in an off-Broadway farce, El Grande de Coca-Cola. Two years later he and Lynne married; they soon moved with the show to Los Angeles. By 1976 Silver was appearing as Gary Levy, Valerie Harper's geeky, sexually repressed neighbor on Rhoda. "Ron was a big tease with such irreverent humor." remembers Harper. "Whenever I wore stockings and sandals, he'd look at me and say, 'Well, that's an attractive outfit, you look like my Aunt Gussie.' " For the next eight years, Silver worked steadily but in minor roles in such films as Silkwood and Best Friends.

"I really liked L.A.," says Silver. "It's just I wasn't terribly successful out there." So in 1984, when director Mike Nichols offered Silver a part in David Rabe's stage sizzler Hurlyburly, the couple seized the chance to move back East. New York took to Silver immediately. As soon as he hit town, Sidney Lumet offered him the lead in Garbo Talks. On Broadway he followed Hurlyburly with Social Security, opposite Mario Thomas.

Parked inside the garage of the Silvers' three-bedroom, Mission-style suburban house are his-and-hers matching black Mercedes cars—a rare, celebrity-style indulgence in a household characterized by cheery supper-table chatter and parent-child kibbitzing over homework. "Here we can live some semblance of a normal life," says Ron. Adds Lynne: "We are incredibly unathletic together." When Silver is not making movies—his next film, Reversal of Fortune, based on the Claus von Bülow story, is due out this fall—he works with the Creative Coalition, a political network he organized in the entertainment community. In March, Silver, who is the group's president, led Susan Sarandon, Christopher Reeve, Alec Baldwin and others in a Washington, D.C, rally to protest a ban against obscenity in federally funded arts projects. Two days later, President Bush refused to endorse the restrictions. "We are very pleased that the President sensed the danger," says Ron of the victory.

"I used to laugh about Ron's politics," says his pal Mantegna. "When my friends came to the play, it was like Tony Bennett. With Ron it was, 'Oh, I want you to meet Senator Moynihan.' " At home, Silver mixes and matches his actor and political friends. "His Seders are really interesting." says Mantegna. "If he hadn't been an actor, he would have had a great shot at being a rabbi."

—Mary H.J. Farrell, Sue Carswell in Westchester

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