Da Silva was born Howard Silverblatt in the U.S. to Russian Jewish immigrant parents. When he became an actor he changed his surname to Da Silva, a very common Portuguese name, yet oddly he had no connection with Portugal. His chosen name had the benefit of being distinctive and memorable, in any case. He launched his acting career on the stage, progressing to significant parts on Broadway, including musical theater. His film career began in the 40s; in that decade alone he had parts in 38 different movies, mostly as heavies. He was blacklisted in 1951 after refusing to testify in front of HUAC as to his political activities or those of anyone else he knew. Apparently keeping his lips zipped was somewhat uncharacteristic of Da Silva. Fellow actor Robert Taylor, whose words got him that visit to HUAC in the first place, supposedly said "He seems to always have something to say at the wrong time." The blacklisting resulted in a hiatus from movies, but Da Silva eventually found work on television and on the stage once again. [For more on the blacklisting in Hollywood check out the current series from www.youmustrememberthispodcast.com] He returned to film in the 1960s and gained memorable parts through the early 1980s. One has the sense that this was a man who was devoted to, and devoted himself completely to, his craft of acting.
Here are the films that exposed me to Da Silva and made me an admirer. I realize this just skims the surface of his work, and I look forward to enjoying more of his performances.
THE LOST WEEKEND (1945)
An acting showcase for Ray Milland in the role of an alcoholic struggling through an epic bender, this film allows Da Silva to shine in the small part of a sympathetic paternal bartender in a joint Milland's character frequents. Da Silva has little screen time but dissolves into his role, demonstrating good chemistry with Milland.
|Da Silva (right) attempts to talk Ray Milland out of one for the road.|
|Da Silva (right) confronts Hugh Beamont and William Bendix|
in his character's usual suave but unyielding manner.
In this classic noir penned by Raymond Chandler, Da Silva plays Alan Ladd's rival in love twice over (!) -- as Ladd's estranged wife's lover, and the husband of Veronica Lake (whew!). As character Eddie Harwood, he is also a sophisticated baddie who cuts an elegant figure as the sly owner of the nightclub of the film's title. He is smooth as silk while narrowly escaping blackmailers, thugs,scorned women, and Ladd's righteous anger.
BORDER INCIDENT (1949)
Ricardo Montalban has top billing in this strong docu-noir about a racket smuggling illegal Mexican farm workers across the border. Da Silva shows up about 30 minutes into the film, but once again portrays the heavy, this time the menacing head of the smuggling operation. He's never sympathetic here, and his face and voice dominate the screen when he's setting up Montalban's character for a fall.
TWO YEARS BEFORE THE MAST (1946)
|Da Silva as Captain Thompson explains wistfully to owner |
Stewart (Ray Collins) that he doesn't have to use his sword as
a commercial boat captain.
|Da Silva efficient about the business of a burial at sea, with |
Bendix and Ladd looking sullenly on.
I admit to watching this because of Herbert Marshall. Dan Duryea is the main character and for once, he's the protagonist, albeit a bit oily. Once again, Da Silva portrays a gangster, this time at odds with the press, represented by Duryea and his love interest, Gale Storm.
For something a bit different, I submit this historical musical comedy-drama as perhaps the film that latter-day audiences may best know Da Silva. He portrays the pompous, humorous, witty, and ultimately courageous patriot Benjamin Franklin, a role which he owned on Broadway for many years. And, Da Silva can sing and dance! He is at home in Franklin's skin, and astonishes when he switches from his 'congenial know-it-all' to dead serious in an instant. It's a testament to Da Silva that he comes up against but never crosses the line into caricature. It's written that Da Silva was a bit difficult to work with during 1776's run on Broadway, and director Peter Hunt did not want to work with him in the film; he got the part once he promised to "behave," and, apparently he did! If you've not seen this film, you can watch the clip below to get a sense for it -- here, Ken Howard, Da Silva, and William Daniels (as Thomas Jefferson, Franklin, and John Adams) tunefully debate what bird (!) should represent the nascent U.S. of A.
Radio -- CBS Mystery Theater
With his great voice, Da Silva made quite a number of radio shows, including a regular appearance on CBS Mystery Theater. Check this one out from 1976 -- Da Silva uses the full range of voice to create the conflicted policeman Harry in the drama 'The Smoking Pistol 565.'
[THE LOST WEEKEND is showing on TCM on April 9 at 8PM EDT].
Drop me a line mentioning other Da Silva films you'd recommend!