July 4, 2023: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
I’ve been writing 1776-themed columns on July 4th for seven years now and, admittedly, it’s been getting harder to find ways to not repeat myself. Then it dawned on me that I have yet to sufficiently delve into the remarkable career of Howard Da Silva, forever linked to one of my favorite musicals. Cast as Benjamin Franklin in the original Broadway production of 1776 fifty-four years ago, as well as repeating his performance for its 1972 film version, for many he IS Ben Franklin. It’s certainly how I imagine the great American statesman to have looked and acted in manner and demeanor. Especially with that voice! Ben Franklin had to have sounded exactly like Howard Da Silva, right?
Born Howard Silverblatt in 1909 in Cleveland, Ohio, Da Silva’s parents were Yiddish speaking Russian Jews (he later changed Silverblatt to the Portuguese Da Silva). He was raised in the Bronx and later moved with his family to Pittsburgh. It was there he attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology and found a love for acting, while at the same time working in steel mills to pay his way through school (he was six foot two and weighted 250 lbs). Hitchhiking to New York at age twenty-one, Da Silva was fortunate to find his way into Eva La Gallienne’s famed Civic Repertory Theatre. After making his Broadway debut in 1928, he would appear in more than forty productions over the next six years, ranging from classics to modern drama. Truly, those were the days.
With La Gallienne’s company he did Romeo and Juliet, Liliom, Alice in Wonderland and The Cherry Orchard, which he followed up by working with the burgeoning Group Theatre. Its membership, composed of a new breed of actor like John Garfield, Frances Farmer and Elia Kazan, offered Da Silva the chance to appear with them in the original production of Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy. In that same year, 1937, Da Silva created the role of Larry Foreman in Marc Blitzstein’s play with music, The Cradle Will Rock. Directed by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman, this was the famed Federal Theatre Project production that was banned from being performed on its opening night, resulting in the actors marching to another theatre and playing it in the aisles since the cast were not allowed on a New York stage. Not for the first time in his career would Da Silva find himself at the center of a theatrical cyclone.
When a few years later he took on a supporting part in the musical Away We Go, Da Silva couldn’t have dreamed it would change the course of the American theatre. His creation of the farmhand Jud Fry, in what would be retitled Oklahoma!, was one for the record books.
His film work in Hollywood began in 1935 with an uncredited role in a forgotten comedy titled Once in a Blue Moon. But by 1940, he’d upgraded to bigger and better ones like Abe Lincoln in Illinois, The Sea Wolf andSergeant York. In 1945, he was cast by director Billy Wilder in The Lost Weekend, which swept the Academy Awards and a year later, he was the sadistic ship captain in Two Years Before the Mast. It was a showy part that the actor Brian Donlevy refused, as he was averse to playing such an irredeemable villain. With no such compunctions, Da Silva scored in it and was well on his way to working on both coasts, eminently employable, always delivering the goods.
Then came the Red Scare and the blacklist and a dead stop for Da Silva’s film career. A committed liberal, he fought injustice wherever he found it, leading to his making a number of enemies in the generally conservative post-war climate of Hollywood. When it came time to naming names, some didn’t think twice naming Da Silva. Early In 1947, during television’s early infancy, Congressional hearings were broadcast into homes across America with one such episode starring (there’s no other word for it), the enormously popular actor Robert Taylor, who took the occasion to denounce Da Silva before millions. “I can name a few who seem to sort of disrupt things once in a while,” he said under sworn testimony. “Whether or not they are Communists I don’t know. One chap we have currently, I think is Howard Da Silva. He always seems to have something to say at the wrong time.”
Four years later, in March of 1951, Da Silva was called before the committee and refused to answer any of their questions, citing his first and fifth amendment rights. An example was made of him by his immediate blacklisting (he was replaced in scenes he’d already shot for the film Slaughter Trail by, of all people, Brian Donlevy). He didn’t work in the movie or television industry for the next ten years or so. Thankfully, he had relationships in the theatre that allowed him to continue as an actor, writer and director, so his family didn’t starve. He directed a Broadway revival of The Cradle Will Rock with his good friend Alfred Drake (the original Curly in Oklahoma!) playing the role he had created. He acted in a new play, Burning Bright, by John Steinbeck. He directed Sandhog, a play with music that he also produced (two of its cast members, Eliot Feld and David Winters would be cast as Jets in the original West Side Story two years later). Sadly, none of these shows ran very long and Da Silva was in a constant state of scrounging for work.
In 1956, he starred on Broadway in Compulsion and had what is generally called a succès d’estime, which translates from the French as something that wins critical respect but not popular success. Or, as George S. Kaufman once called it: “A success that runs out of steam.” The play was by Meyer Levin, adapting it from his own novel, and was a fictional take on the infamous Leopold and Loeb case in which two young men callously murdered a young boy for the fun of it. They were defended in court by Clarence Darrow, which was the role Da Silva portrayed in the play.
Off Broadway, he produced, directed and appeared in an adaptation of Sholom Alecheim stories that eventually paved the way for Fiddler on the Roof. Adapted by Arnold Perl, An Evening with Sholom Alecheim featured Da Silva, Jack Gilford, Morris Carnovsky, Phoebe Brand, Sarah Cunningham, Will Lee and Herschel Bernardi — all blacklisted. In late 1959, Da Silva co-starred in the smash Broadway musical, Fiorello! and received his one and only Tony nomination. Due to bizarre billing rules at the time, Tom Bosley who was playing the title role, was relegated to competing opposite Da Silva in the Featured Actor category (Bosley won).
In 1962, with the blacklist finally over, Da Silva returned to feature films (his last one had been released in 1951). He went to England to play a doctor in director Frank Perry’s David and Lisa, a low budget drama which won acclaim around the world for its honest depiction of psychiatry. For his performance, Da Silva was nominated for the BAFTA, the British equivalent to the Academy Award.
From then on, things were back on track for Da Silva, who easily juggled his jobs between theatre, film and television as actor, director, writer and producer. His aforementioned Broadway triumph as Benjamin Franklin in 1776, however, came with a price. He was prevented from doing the first few months of its run, after playing opening night and receiving rave reviews for his performance, as he had experienced a heart attack on the Thursday prior to the show’s Sunday night opening. Da Silva insisted on playing the previews and the opening and was rushed to the hospital when the curtain came down, an ambulance on standby. True story.
He eventually recovered, rejoined the company, and played the role for most of the first two years of its run. When it came time for the film version, the play’s director, Peter H. Hunt, who had been hired to repeat his chores and direct it, didn’t want Da Silva, who had been particularly difficult during the musical’s out of town engagements and had made Hunt’s life a living hell. But Da Silva knew the part better than anyone (and was soooo good in it) and insisted his agent sent up a lunch (he paid), wherein he told Hunt he would be “an absolute pussycat.” He was and the experience proved a happy one for everyone involved and thankfully preserved his performance for all time.
There are too many of Da Silva’s credits to list individually and, adding them up, he seemingly worked with just about everyone in the business. He directed Purlie Victorious for playwright and star Ossie Davis (to be revived on Broadway this fall). He was the best of the dozens of Louis B. Mayers who’ve been portrayed on film in Mommie Dearest, opposite Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford. He even played Nikita Khrushchev in The Missiles of October, a made for TV production that had him duking it out with William Devane’s John F. Kennedy and Martin Sheen’s Robert F. Kennedy.
Da Silva never stopped working. In 1978, he did Verna: USO Girl, a ninety-minute film for PBS’s Great Performances that marked the film debut of William Hurt. Co-starring Sissy Spacek and Sally Kellerman, Da Silva’s has-been Catskills comic, touring with the USO during World War II, was a beaut. He got to sing and dance a bit and, for his efforts, won a Primetime Emmy, one of the only awards he ever received over the course of his long career. I own the DVD of Verna and suggest you check out his gem of a performance (it’s also a wonderful film).
In 1984, his final role came in Sidney Lumet’s Garbo Talks, in which he played a grizzled old paparazzi. That mellifluous voice spoke volumes in the few short scenes he had. He doesn’t overdo a single moment. It’s all lived in; felt. Everything Da Silva did had that quality. He really was a master.
If you enjoyed this, please check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, please follow me here on Medium and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.