Which Black Actor Was Paid to Be White?

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Frank Silvera

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 97: Which 20th-century black actor played roles of all races during a time when Hollywood had few roles for black actors?


This Friday, people the world over will don costumes to portray someone else. The brother I’m thinking of made a living out of it year-round. He was one of the 20th century’s greatest character actors, a craft defined by the great Giancarlo Esposito of Breaking Bad fame as being “open … a chameleon.” And, frankly, I had never heard of the actor in question until Mark Whitaker told me during an interview for an article in The Root about Bill Cosby that this man was one of Cosby’s most important influences as an actor. This chameleon was Frank Silvera, a brilliantly gifted actor who, in the 1950s and ’60s, seemed to have a lock on every ambiguously ethnic part.  

Seriously, whether it was on stage, screen or TV, Silvera could look and sound like any man of any race or nationality. He was, according his obituary in the New Pittsburgh Courier on June 27, 1970, “a white bad man in ‘Killer with a Gun,’ a South American revolutionist in ‘The Naked Hunt,’ a Chinese Colonel in ‘The Mountain Road,’ a Mexican detective in ‘Key Witness’ and a Tahitian chieftain in ‘Mutiny on the Bounty.’ ” The proof was in his acting credits—77, according to IMDB, and that doesn’t include his stage work or each individual television episode in which he appeared. 


But there was a catch: Silvera was so good at blurring the lines between black, white and everything in between that he had trouble being seen for who he really was—the child of a white Jewish father and a black mother from Jamaica who embodied, in his soul and skin, a multiplicity of identities and experience that defied easy labels. Other performers may have sung about being “Mr. Cellophane,” but Silvera was the real thing, and he often just blended in as “that guy … who was in that thing” (the actual name of a documentary about the trials and tribulations of Hollywood careers).

Crossing the racial line in roles, however, wasn’t what made Silvera unique. Plenty of people throughout history have passed for one group or another. What made Silvera special was that his invisibility left him with a reservoir of compassion for other invisibles in society, not least his fellow African Americans. During the climax of the civil rights movement, Silvera, as a performer, producer, director, theater founder and acting coach, was determined to do for black people in Hollywood what Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer had done through the literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Like them, he wished to bring the whole black person into view in the arts, and through those disciplines, access universal truths that spoke to the entire human family.  


Had it not been for a freak accident at his home in 1970, Silvera might have lived a long life and been able to see what we as a people have achieved since he created his Theatre of Being in Los Angeles in 1965. Instead, over time, it is he who has faded from view.


One hundred years ago, on July 24, 1914, Frank Silvera was born on the Caribbean island of Jamaica. His father, Alfred Neville Silvera, was white and Jewish. His mother, Gertrude Louise Silvera, was black. (It’s not unheard of for a Jamaican to have Jewish roots, as we saw with Gloria Reuben on Episode 1 of Finding Your Roots this season.)


By the time Silvera was 8 years old, his parents had separated. He and his brothers migrated with their mother to Boston, where she took up work as a seamstress and he enrolled in school, graduating from English High School in 1934.  

Silvera’s mind was on a legal career. For two years he was enrolled at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, but his heart belonged to the stage. In 1934, he appeared in his first show, Potter’s Field, at Boston’s Plymouth Theatre. He also belonged to the city’s Federal Street Theatre.


During World War II, Silvera joined the Navy, just like his fellow Jamaican Harry Belafonte. However, according to an article that ran posthumously in the Chicago Daily Defender on March 6, 1971, “Silvera believes that he is probably the only boatswain never to have set foot aboard a ship.” Instead, during his tour of duty he toiled on stage productions.

A ‘Man of Many Parts’ 

After the war, Silvera moved to New York, and in 1945 he made his Broadway debut as Joe in Anna Lucasta, which had been adapted for an all-black cast by the American Negro Theater in 1944. Silvera also honed his craft as a member of the Actors Studio alongside fellow young guns Marlon Brando and Paul Newman.  


Silvera’s first television gig was The Big Story in 1949, and his first screen role was in the 1952 Audie Murphy western, The Cimarron Kid. A host of other parts followed, including three more that year: Paulino in The Fighter, Victoriano Huerta in Viva Zapata and Arturo dos Santos in The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima. It soon became obvious that with his “café-au-lait” skin (the Chicago Defender’s words) and gift for accents, Silvera could play anyone. He was, as the New York Times put it on June 12, 1970, a “man of many parts.”  

For example, you’d see Silvera as the cruel boss Vincent Rapallo in Stanley Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss or Minarii in Mutiny on the Bounty. Then he’d pop up on TV in The Untouchables. Then you’d read about him onstage, playing King Lear in Central Park or, in 1963, earning a Tony nomination for best actor as M. Duval in Alexandre Dumas’ The Lady of the Camelias. He also played the father to a slate of white actors in the 1956 play Hatful of Rain. “I think of all the boys who played my sons in ‘Rain,’ ” Silvera quipped to the Los Angeles Sentinel on March 2, 1965. “Ben Gazzara, Tony Franciosa, Steve McQueen, Harry Guardino, Mark Richman.”


Most people associated Silvera with Spanish roles, and he appeared in a slew of westerns, from The Appaloosa to Bat Masterson to Bonanza. He even played an “Arab leader” in TV’s The Rat Patrol. “I have played … more varied national characters than I can honestly number,” Silvera was quoted in the New York Amsterdam News on Sept. 10, 1966. “Strange business.”

The Theatre of Being

It was the civil rights movement that ignited Silvera’s passion for shining his light on blackness. “I marched in the March on Washington, and after it I saw the hitch,” he was quoted in the Washington Post on June 13, 1970. “I knew what was happening to me as a Negro and how I could transcend it as a white man. I knew the suffering that oppression causes.  I was on a compassion kick. I decided I had to do something about it.”


What had inspired him was James Baldwin’s first play, The Amen Corner. Published in 1954, the play tells the tale of a Harlem evangelist who has a far more complicated family life than her ministry lets on. A passion for the play had been ripening within Silvera for 10 years, but not just any 10 years. The decade between 1954 and 1964 was the difference between Brown vs. Board of Education and the fight for the Civil Rights Act, what we now remember as the heroic phase of the movement.  

“I staged a reading of ‘The Amen Corner,’ then called Baldwin and told him I’d like to produce it,” Silvera told the Los Angeles Sentinel on March 2, 1965. Baldwin’s response: “ ‘You just hit me with a blockbuster, baby.’ ” Silvera’s staging of play led to the creation of the Theatre of Being in Los Angeles, which he founded with Vantile Whitfield.  


Silvera was clear about his mission in his interview with the Sentinel: “We show the Negro as being. Trying is not being. Being is. The Negro has been denied being. Denied his image. He’s got to be in the whole picture. What did Genet say—‘You kill us but you have no corpses?’ ”  

While movement leaders were drawing camera crews to the South to convey what Jim Crow was really about, Silvera wanted the Theatre of Being to give L.A. audiences the fullest possible sense of authentic black life, to see their own humanity reflected back to them in the struggles of black people. It wasn’t about “trying to assume whitedom,” Silvera told William Glover of the Associated Press (published in the Hartford Courant on May 9, 1965), but about the black American being “complete in his own reality.”


The Theatre of Being opened in Los Angeles on March 4, 1964, or as Silvera liked to put it, “March Forth,” echoing the movement. (The theater also posted a clever sign for sold-out performances—“Soul Out,” as Glover observed.) “As far as I’m concerned, this past decade has been marked by three distinct turning points when it comes to the civil rights struggle,” Silvera was quoted in the New Pittsburgh Courier on June 27, 1970. “The first was the protest marches and sit-ins. The second was the dramatic, though unfortunate, occurrence of virtual revolts in our cities. … But the third turning point will, in my humble opinion, be the most effective. It’s the effect that television programming and advertising is having and will continue to have on all our people, black and white.”

Silvera’s prediction was that, by expanding opportunities for African Americans in Hollywood, “[w]hites [would] come to see Black people essentially as other Americans who, though they look different, are basically the same as themselves: the fear and suspicion of Blackness will recede.” At the same time, he prophesied, “[b]lack people will experience a growing sense of self worth: they’ll see themselves ‘in the picture,’ a part of the mainstream of American life. … And isn’t this what the whole thing is really about? Of course it is.”


The Theatre of Being had production and teaching components, and Silvera drove his actors hard, so much so that they nicknamed him “Rasputin.” But no one was more loyal to the talent he cultivated, including Isabel Sanford (later of The Jeffersons), Juanita Moore (Imitation of Life) and Beah Richards, who, before appearing in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, won acclaim for her turn as Margaret Alexander in The Amen Corner. And when Richards wasn’t given a single role in Hollywood that next year, save as a maid, Silvera was so outraged he took out an ad in one of the trades, which, as quoted by Glover of the AP, said: “To the industry: We thank you for nothing. You have ignored us. You have insulted us. You have rendered us invisible.”

Into the Theatre of Being Silvera poured his money and compassion, born out of the wounding experiences he had endured in his 50 years on Earth—not least the four years he had spent earlier in his career on the McCarthy-era blacklist (surviving on stage work until his agent cleared his name, according to the Chicago Daily Defender on March 6, 1971). “The theater,” Glover quoted Silvera, “must communicate a new affirmation—to help lead people out of the quicksands of hate.” As an actor, a producer, director and teacher, Silvera was the one pulling on the rope of rescue. “The Theatre of Being takes us back to B.C.,” he told Glover, “before the corruption of words, and gets at the meaning behind words. In that process reality emerges.”


Silvera’s production group was home to that emerging reality from 1964 to 1967, right in the heart of Hollywood, from the Robertson Playhouse to the Coronet to the Music Box. In addition to The Amen Corner, they staged Blood Knot (by South African playwright Athol Fugard), a poetry night called For My People (a tribute to Margaret Walker’s 1942 book of poetry, which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets award) and had an open house in 1966 where Maya Angelou performed, three years before the world would know her as the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Outside of Los Angeles, Silvera brought The Amen Corner to Broadway in April 1965 with sponsorship from the widow of Nat King Cole, who had hoped to back the show himself before losing his fight with cancer that February. Silvera not only directed and produced The Amen Corner, but he also starred as Luke, the estranged husband. It premiered April 15, 1965, and ran for 84 performances at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, the same theater where A Raisin in the Sun opened in 1959 and again in 2014.  


Like Lorraine Hansberry, Frank Silvera was a genius, “a deeply earnest, studious man, who talks more like a college professor than a thespian,” the Chicago Daily Defender said March 6, 1971. For example, in his interview with Glover, Silvera said that he was struggling against “the world’s infrangible obduracy” and that “the nightmare of hate that engulfs us is due to a disease of the mind like polio is a disease of the blood.” For Silvera, the struggle was ongoing. “I’ve poured all my money into this,” he told Glover, “but I can’t stop now.” 

Early Exit

By the late 1960s, Silvera was encouraged by the changes he was seeing in Hollywood with such TV shows as Mod Squad and Ironside (not to mention I Spy and Julia). No longer was the industry slavishly appeasing the old “Southern bloc” that had balked at even the most innocent casting moves, such as giving Ethel Waters a role in a gasoline commercial. Now there was a growing black middle class to market to as well, not to mention foreign audiences. “Idealists may complain that the industry isn’t changing because of its heart, but because of its pocketbook, but I look at it another way,” Silvera was quoted in the New Pittsburgh Courier on June 27, 1970. “This projection of the Black image in millions of homes is bound to alter stereotypes and prejudices held for so long.”


Sadly, just as Silvera was arriving at this crossroads of change, he was struck down—entirely by accident. He was electrocuted at his home in Pasadena while trying to fix his garbage disposal. It was June 11, 1970, a month shy of his 56th birthday. At the time, I bet most casual readers who saw the news about his death in the paper, if they knew him at all, would have said, “Hey, did you hear the guy who played Don Sebastian on High Chaparral died?”

“It was a terrible irony,” black writer and activist Julian Mayfield wrote in the New York Times on June 21, 1970, “that he, who cared so much about his people, was seldom offered a role as a black man, but played a long succession of Mexicans, Indians, Puerto Ricans, and Italians.”


None of this had been lost on Silvera when he was alive. “I am the son of a Sephardic Jew from Spain, married to a native Jamaican wife with Scottish and Maroon blood. I wasn’t considered Negro or white. Who am I in all this?” he was quoted in the Washington Post on June 13, 1970.  

But those who knew him, who studied him, recognized the groundwork he had laid. As Mayfield explained: “When we became friends, I learned that Frank Silvera was a mad man, in the very best sense of the term, like the great Abolitionists. He dreamed the impossible and tried to make it a reality.” Eulogizing him in the Los Angeles Times on July 12, 1970, Beah Richardson wrote that Silvera’s “genius created a skinless oasis where we, cast, crew, sponsors and audience were able to perceive ourselves in our alikeness. … All who knew him were inspired by his aliveness, his perceptions, his compassion.”



Silvera’s funeral was held in Queens, New York, and he was buried in Long Island National Cemetery by his ex-wife, Anna Quarles, and their two children, Frank Jr. and Linda Ann, along with 100 mourners, according to a story in the New York Amsterdam News on June 20, 1970. In death, Silvera’s legacy continued through the Frank Silvera Writers Workshop, formed in Harlem in 1973 by his devoted students, including Morgan Freeman. 


I have no doubt that had Silvera lived to see his 100th birthday this year, he would have been astonished by—and so very proud of—what the revolution has produced throughout the performing arts. Take Shonda Rhimes, the TV show runner who now owns Thursday nights on ABC with her series Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. For there to be Shondaland in 2014, there had to be Silvera-land in 1964.

Revisiting his career, I couldn’t help but think Silvera would have made an intriguing guest on Finding Your Roots (which continues tomorrow evening on PBS with Angela Bassett, Valerie Jarrett and Nas). But not just because of his black-Jewish-Jamaican heritage. No, I would have loved to have been able to show Silvera his extended family tree—in the black talent of Hollywood—and say, “We see you, Frank, and the many branches leading back to you.”


As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


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