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The guiding hand behind such Hollywood hits as "Commando" (1985), "Lethal Weapon" (1987) and "Die Hard" (1988), Joel Silver helped redefine the American action film near the turn of the century, while shifting the label of auteur away from the film director to the producer. Having paid his dues as an assistant to producer Lawrence Gordon following his graduation from film school, Silver swiftly worked his way up the industry ladder, earning a producer's credit with Walter Hill's "48 Hrs." (1982). With the formation of his own company, Silver stamped a fresh template for the Hollywood action film, dialing up the violence quotient from previous decades while leavening the mixture with ample doses of humor. Silver also altered the genre recipe by making movie stars out of nontraditional performers from the worlds of professional sports and stand-up comedy. His outsized ego branded him persona non grata at several major studios, but Silver's track record for success was inarguable - especially after the box office juggernaut that was "The Matrix" (1999) and its sequels, which pushed his profit margin into the multi-billions. Often demonized by critics for emphasizing style - and explosions - over substance, Silver nonetheless came to represent the state of the art of big box office Hollywood filmmaking, earning by sheer force of will and a savvy sense of the next big thing the mantle of mega-producer.
Joel Silver was born on July 14, 1952, in South Orange, NJ. As a student at Columbia High School in Maplewood, NJ, Silver manifested an entrepreneurial spirit when he invented the sport Ultimate Frisbee, later shortening the brand to Ultimate. He led an Ultimate team in 1970 on the campus of Lafayette College, a liberal arts school in Easton, PA before continuing his education with the study of film at New York University. Reading Bob Thomas' King Cohn: The Life and Times of Hollywood Mogul Harry Cohn urged Silver to pursue a career as a movie producer when most of his classmates were following the path of writer-director. Directly out of NYU, he dabbled in television in Los Angeles before returning to the East Coast in 1977 for a job with Lawrence Gordon Pictures. After serving as Gordon's assistant on the Burt Reynolds vehicles "The End" (1978) and "Hooper" (1978), Silver earned an associate producer credit on Walter Hill's "The Warriors" (1979).
Silver earned his first producer's credit for Paramount's "48 Hrs." (1982), directed by Hill and starring Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy as a cop-and-convict team hunting a killer through San Francisco. Though Hill's follow-up, "Streets of Fire" (1984), was a box office nonstarter, Silver's success through the ensuing decade with such hyperbolic action films as "Commando" (1985) and "Predator" (1986) with Arnold Schwarzenegger, "Lethal Weapon" (1987) with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, and "Die Hard" (1988) with Bruce Willis elevated him to the pantheon of top-tier producers. Inspired by such seminal action films of the Sixties as John Boorman's "Point Blank" (1967), Robert Aldrich's "The Dirty Dozen" (1968) and Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" (1969), Silver retained the extreme violence of these titles, while dialing down the existentialism in favor of an aerobic level of mayhem. The new school of film producers personified by Silver and Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer became known within the industry as mega-producers, the true auteurs of crash-and-burn action films of American cinema in the Eighties and Nineties.
In film after film, Silver pushed the inside of the genre envelope, unafraid to tender absurd plots to the movie-going public. His critically reviled "Road House" (1989), starring Patrick Swayze as an autocratic bouncer, became a bona fide cult hit on home video and inspired an off-Broadway stage adaptation. If the Silver touch did not bestow success on such duds as "The Adventures of Ford Fairlaine" (1990), a star vehicle for comic Andrew "Dice" Clay, or "Hudson Hawk" (1991), a lighthearted caper dud starring Bruce Willis, his bottom line was more than held up by the returns from "Demolition Man" (1993), starring Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes, and "Conspiracy Theory" (1997), which paired macho Mel Gibson with chick flick diva Julia Roberts, resulting in one of the most successful films of 1997. Silver also gambled on making stars out of stand-up comics like Damon Wayans in "The Last Action Hero" and sports personalities like basketball star Dennis Rodman in "Double Team" while squeezing every film franchise for all its worth in sequels and merchandising tie-ins.
Silver's reputation for professional excess and a larger-than-life personality became something of an inside joke in Hollywood. He had poked fun at his blustery reputation in a cameo appearance in Robert Zemeckis' "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (1988) and was parodied in such films as "Grand Canyon" (1991), "True Romance" (1993) and "I'll Do Anything" (1994). Having founded Silver Pictures in 1985 as a springboard for his A-list action-adventure films, Silver diversified in 1999 with the subsidiary Dark Castle Pictures, founded with Robert Zemeckis. Named after legendary schlock film director-producer William Castle, Dark Castle was established to develop remakes of classic horror films, such as "House on Haunted Hill" (1999), "Thir13en Ghosts" (2001) and "House of Wax" (2005), as well as original product on the order of "Ghost Ship" (2002), "Gothika" (2003), "Orphan" (2009) and "Splice" (2010).
Another profitable franchise for Silver was spawned by Larry (now Lana) and Andy Wachowski's "The Matrix" (1999), a virtual reality thriller that changed the shape of the American action film by infusing the standard shoot-em-up with lashings of science fiction and mythology. The original film garnered respectable reviews while returning receipts of $463 million and Academy Awards in four technical categories. Filmed simultaneously and released separately in 2003, the sequels "The Matrix Reloaded" and "The Matrix Revolutions" delivered box office returns amounting to more than $11 billion. Silver also enjoyed good press from "V for Vendetta" (2006), an adaptation of Alan Moore and David Lloyd's graphic novel starring Natalie Portman, and "The Brave One" (2007), a revenge tale starring Jodie Foster. Less successful were "The Invasion" (2007), a remake of Don Siegel's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956), and Dominic Sena's "Whiteout" (2009), both of which suffered behind-the-scenes difficulties and were delayed from their release dates by postproduction retooling.
Silver has also produced occasionally for the small screen via Silver Pictures Television, with the critically-acclaimed but short-lived female detective series "Veronica Mars" (UPN, 2004-07) and the critically-reviled and even shorter-lived vampire detective series "Moonlight" (2007-08), which limped through a single season on CBS. On the big screen, Silver had another estimable hit with Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" (2009), which restyled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's high-strung Victorian sleuth as a buff bohemian dandy played by American actor Robert Downey, Jr. The film's record-breaking Christmas 2009 opening led to over $500 million in box office receipts, making it one of the highest grossing films of the year and ensuring the inevitable sequel. Less of a home run but a modest moneymaker nonetheless was the Hughes Brothers "The Book of Eli" (2010), starring Denzel Washington as the survivor of a nuclear holocaust who navigates a bomb-flattened America on a quest to find a home for the last surviving Bible.
By Richard Harland Smith
Cast (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Producer (TV Mini-Series)
Debut as associate producer, "The Warriors"
Served as a co-producer of the movie musical "Xanadu"
First film as executive producer, "Jekyll and Hyde...Together Again"
Formed production company Silver Pictures
First film under the Silver Pictures banner, "Commando"
Initial screen collaboration with director Richard Donner, "Lethal Weapon" with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover
Feature acting debut, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit"
Produced the action hit "Die Hard," starring Bruce Willis
Produced "Leathal Weapon 2," also directed by Donner
Executive produced, along with Richard Donner, David Giler, Walter Hill and Robert Zemeckis, the HBO series "Tales From the Crypt"
Continued the franchise with "Leathal Weapon 3"
Made directorial debut with "Split Personality," an episode from "Tales From the Crypt"
Received the 1,993rd star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on October 7
Produced Donner's "Assassins," scripted by Larry and Andy Wachowski
Reteamed with Donner and Gibson for "Conspiracy Theory"
Had box office smash with "The Matrix," a special effects-driven live-action comic book written and directed by the Wachowski Brothers
Served as executive producer of the short-lived UPN series "The Strip
Was executive producer of the controversial but low-rated Fox sitcom "Action" centered on a Hollywood studio executive
Executive produced the UPN fall drama "Freedom"
Served as producer on the action thriller "Swordfish," starring John Travolta and Halle Berry
Produced the USA Network original movie "Jane Doe"
Produced "13 Ghosts"
Served as producer of the action film "Cradle to the Grave," starring Jet Li and DMX
Produced third film in the trilogy "The Matrix Revolutions"
Produced the highly-anticipated sequel "The Matrix Reloaded"
Executive produced crime drama series "Veronica Mars" (UPN, The CW)
Produced the remake of "House of Wax"
Produced "V For Vendetta," once again collaborating with Larry and Andy Wachowski who adapted Alan Moore and David Lloyd's graphic novel
Reteamed with writers and directors the Wachowski Brothers for live action adaptation of "Speed Racer"
Produced Guy Ritchie's feature adaptation of "Sherlock Holmes" with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law
Returned as producer for the sequel "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows"
Announced he was ending production deal with Warner Bros. after 25-year partnership
Executive produced the teen comedy "Project X"