Ron Silver looks like a Talmudic scholar and has entertained Madonna at a seder dinner in his suburban home. The intense, bearded actor enjoys the contradictions of fame- and the uses that can be made of celebrity.
"It's unfortunate that people like cab drivers and teachers don't get a lot of attention from the media," says Silver. "But, if it takes the presence of a Whoopi Goldberg or a Billy Crystal to help draw attention to a problem like homelessness, then that's a perfectly legitimate use of celebrity. If you're privileged enough to have people shoving mikes in your face, you ought to use that platform effectively."
As president of the Creative Coalition, a lobbying group of about 200 arts and entertainment figures, Silver recently joined actors Alec Baldwin, Christopher Reeve and other celebrities in working the halls of Congress in support of the National Endowment for the Arts. "I think that public personalities can dissipate their influence by not taking the time to get informed on an issue," Silver says. "One of the obligations of being in our group is that you have to take the time to learn about the issue at hand."
Silver, who first gained attention as Valerie Harper's obnoxious neighbor in "Rhoda," has an opportunity to match his advocacy with his acting on a TNT movie premiering this week. He plays an American drawn into the horrors of political torture in the two-hour "Forgotten Prisoners: The Amnesty Files."
Silver recently has been praised by critics for his performances in a wide variety of movie roles. He made a womanizing lout sympathetic in Paul Mazursky's "Enemies: A Love Story," and he has been described as the "tough, unsentimental conscience" of "Reversal of Fortune," the new movie about the Claus von Bulow attempted-murder trial.
The TNT movie, which is drawn from the files of Amnesty International, the human-rights organization, focuses on cases of torture of political prisoners in Turkey. A former torture victim who had spent years in a Turkish prison was an adviser on the film. The characters, however, are drawn from composites because, the producers say, using specific events could put lives in danger.
In the movie, Silver plays a somewhat naive American, a specialist in international law, who goes to Turkey as an Amnesty representative to observe the trials of a group of political prisoners. He becomes involved in trying to free the group, which includes a teen-age boy and a political cartoonist.
The movie shows the effects of torture, but it also shows the potentially positive effects of letter-writing campaigns by members of Amnesty on behalf of political prisoners.
"When you read about hundreds of people being detained, it may be hard to focus on their stories," says Silver, who has been a member of Amnesty International for many years. "But, in this TV movie, you see individuals and their families. Hopefully, watching the movie will help people see torture victims as something more than statistics."
In addition to his activities with lobbying organizations, Silver also has campaigned on his own for a number of liberal candidates in both the Republican and Democratic parties. Earlier this month, Silver joined New York Gov. Mario Cuomo in stumping for an environmental bond issue.
With all of this activity, is he considering running for office himself?
"What?" he asks, laughing. "And lose the influence that I have now?"
"Forgotten Prisoners: The Amnesty Files" airs on TNT Monday at 5-7 p.m., 7-9 p.m., 9-11 p.m., 11 p.m.-1a.m.; Tuesday at 7-9 a.m., 1-3 p.m., and Saturday at 7-9 p.m.