Henry Silva, dependable screen villain in films including The Manchurian Candidate and Ocean’s 11 – obituary

Silva plays a hitman in the Italian film noir La mala ordina (The Italian Connection), 1972 - American International Pictures/Getty Images
Silva plays a hitman in the Italian film noir La mala ordina (The Italian Connection), 1972 - American International Pictures/Getty Images

Henry Silva, who has died aged 95, was a character actor whose comic-book villain looks won him roles in dozens of films and television series.

With his high cheekbones, close-set eyes, jutting chin and blunt, tiny nose, Silva was the go-to man for Hollywood casting directors looking for menacing “foreign-looking” types at a time when one slightly dark foreigner was as good as another in American films. “I could play almost everything but a Swede - and I’m working on that,” Silva told the Los Angeles Times in 1963.

His manner on screen was taciturn and watchful, morphing slowly to malignant when he smiled or laughed. “Henry’s face is almost like a mask,” the director Jim Jarmusch observed, “but the things that do flicker across it can be very interesting.”

His best known roles include a treacherous North Korean spy who guides American servicemen into the hands of their mind-controlling captors in John Frankenheimer’s Cold War classic The Manchurian Candidate (1962). As a minor member of Frank Sinatra’s “Rat Pack” in real life, he played one of the casino thieves in Ocean’s Eleven (1960).

He rarely had leading roles, an exception being in Johnny Cool (1963), when he played a Sicilian gangster sent to the US by a Mob boss to rub out a few rivals.

Silva on the set of Roger Corman’s war film The Secret Invasion in 1964 - Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Silva on the set of Roger Corman’s war film The Secret Invasion in 1964 - Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Henry Silva was born in Brooklyn on September 23 1926, the son of an illiterate mother, originally from Puerto Rico, and a Sicilian immigrant father who abandoned his family before Henry was one. He grew up in Spanish Harlem – “the kind of place where if you lived on one block and you wanted to go a few blocks away, you had to take a couple of guys with you, or else you would get your ass kicked.”

He recalled that in later life gangsters would approach him with the words “My God, where did you learn how to play us?”.

“I say, ‘I lived with ‘us’ I grew up with ‘us’ in New York.’ I used to know the guys who used to run the whole areas, the prostitution rings. I used to shine their shoes. They’d say, ‘Kid, c’mere. I want ya to shine my shoes. You (mess) up I’ll bust your head.’”

Silva spoke little English when he started school and found it intimidating. He found refuge in films and by the time he was eight, inspired by Mickey Rooney’s Andy Hardy movies, had determined to become an actor. After leaving school aged 13 he worked odd jobs, including as a dishwasher, waiter and longshoreman to save money for drama classes.

Silva (in 2007); gangsters would ask him: ‘Where did you learn how to play us?’ - Chad Buchanan/Getty Images
Silva (in 2007); gangsters would ask him: ‘Where did you learn how to play us?’ - Chad Buchanan/Getty Images

In his 20s, he auditioned for the Actors Studio, and was one of five students chosen out of more than 2,500 applicants. When the Studio staged Michael V Gazzo’s drama about drug addiction, A Hatful of Rain, as a classroom project, he played a dope peddler called Mother. The play proved so successful it went to Broadway and Silva reprised the role in Fred Zinnemann’s 1957 film version.

His early film career was mainly in westerns, including Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T (1957), in which he played Richard Boone’s psychopathic henchman. His portrayal of a gangster in Johnny Cool impressed Jim Jarmusch, who would cast him as a Mob boss in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999).

For a decade or so Silva worked in Europe, appearing in spaghetti westerns such as The Hills Run Red (1966) in which he played a black leather-clad Mexican villain, and action films. On television he appeared in numerous crime dramas including as a Mob enforcer in The Untouchables (1959-63).

Silva’s three marriages, to Mary Ramus, Cindy Conroy and Ruth Earl, were dissolved. He is survived by two sons.

Henry Silva, born September 23 1926, died September 14 2022