Henry Silva obituary

The actor Henry Silva, one of the screen’s most chilling villains, who has died aged 95, once complained: “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.”

Nevertheless, Silva’s dark, sepulchral looks got him cast almost invariably as a bad guy and, given Hollywood stereotyping, as evil “foreign-looking” types. Silva oozed menace 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 that he was eight years old when he decided to become an actor. His inspiration was primarily his mother who, upon returning from shopping, would imitate the shopkeepers and people she had encountered. Henry left school to attend drama classes, supporting himself as a dishwasher and then waiter in a Manhattan hotel.

Finally, in his 20s, he auditioned for the famed Actors Studio, and was one of five students chosen out of more than 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 bit part as a Mexican peasant in Viva Zapata!

When the Studio staged Michael V Gazzo’s play about drug addiction, A Hatful of Rain, as a classroom project, it proved so successful it went to Broadway, where it ran for nearly a year from November 1955.

Opposite fellow Actors Studio students Ben Gazzara, Shelley Winters and Anthony Franciosa in the roles of, respectively, a drug addict, his wife and his brother, Silva played a malevolent drug-pusher known as Mother. Only he and Franciosa repeated their roles for the 1957 Fred Zinnemann movie version.

But it was not long before Silva established himself as a ruthless baddie, mainly in westerns, starting with Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T (1957), in which, as Richard Boone’s psychopathic henchman called Chink, clad in a pink shirt and braces, he menaces Randolph Scott. He played a similar role, this time as a henchman of Richard Widmark, in John Sturges’ The Law and Jake Wade (1958), explaining that his father was the first man he killed.

Henry Silva, right, with Sammy Davis Jr in Johnny Cool, 1963.
Henry Silva, right, with Sammy Davis Jr in Johnny Cool, 1963. Photograph: Moviestore/Shutterstock

He caused problems for Gregory Peck in The Bravados (1958), for Audie Murphy in Ride a Crooked Trail (1958) and for Jeff Chandler in The Jayhawkers (1959). As the tribal leader’s son, 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, whom he joined in Ocean’s 11 (1960), as one of the heist gang. (Silva had a cameo 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 chief who wishes to unite all the tribes to massacre every cavalryman 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 at in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), in which, as a treacherous Korean gentleman’s gentleman, Silva has a tremendous martial arts fight with Sinatra. A year later, Silva got his first top billing in Johnny Cool, as a Sicilian mobster dispatched to the US to rub out several apparently respectable men who have betrayed his boss.

In Roger Corman’s second world war picture The Secret Invasion (1964), a precursor of The Dirty Dozen, Silva is suitably cold-blooded, although he is on the allied side. In the end, dressed as a Nazi, he guns down an Italian fascist general in front of his troops.

Then, following Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef to Italy and spaghetti westerns, Silva found himself a big star in Europe after The Hills Run Red (1966), in which he played a scary Mexican villain, clad in black leather. For the following two decades, Silva made a good living playing various mafia types in strings of Italian gangster movies, while cropping up regularly on American TV (he was Kane, the hero’s nemesis, in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century), and several Hollywood action films.

Among his most memorable roles was his junkie hit man in Sharky’s Machine (1981), who has a showdown with a tough cop, played by Burt Reynolds. In the Chuck Norris movie Code of Silence (1985), Silva delivered the following lines with relish: “One day, I would like to give you a gift of a Colombian necktie. It’s very special. You slit the throat, pull out the tongue and, on you, it would look beautiful.”

Jim Jarmusch used Silva cleverly in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), in which, in one of his last film roles, as a gang boss, he almost pastiches himself.

Silva was married and divorced three times. He is survived by two sons, Scott and Michael.

• Henry Silva, actor, born 23 September 1926; died 14 September 2022

• Ronald Bergan died in 2020