While the 1930s to 1950s were the heyday of movie stars being randomly ‘discovered’ at places such as Schwab’s Pharmacy on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard, such serendipitous circumstances have continued to occur in the wacky world of Hollywood entertainment. One lucky recipient of almost instant fame was my friend Frank Silva.
Frank came from a theatrical background and had once longed – like so many other Hollywood hopefuls – to be a working film and TV actor. The stereotype of an actor sitting by the phone waiting for their agent to call is the reality faced by most individuals seeking a ‘break’ in the business. And, as is true of the vast majority of such hopefuls who find hunger and near-homelessness less than desirable, Frank eventually settled for a more reliable role as part of a film crew working behind the camera.
From the moment I met Frank in his home base of Los Angeles in 1988 on the set of the film Tap, it was clear that his larger-than-life personality and passion for living dramatically set him apart from most other crew members. Indeed, while Frank was kind and generous in most situations, he could be a force of nature when things didn’t go his way. It was impossible to be in a group without Frank quickly becoming the center of attention. Such was the exuberance of his demeanor.
In addition to his strong personality, Frank’s appearance was striking with his prominent facial features and thick shoulder length hair, tinted lightly with natural streaks of gray. Add his deep resonant voice to the mix and Frank surely possessed the qualities required to be a professional actor. Frank was proud of the Portuguese heritage and genes passed on from his parents and often talked about his formative years growing up in California’s Central Valley.
David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks”
By late 1989, Frank and I – along with several other close Seattle friends – were once again working together, this time on David Lynch’s 2-hour TV pilot Twin Peaks. On a work-related shopping trip to Vancouver, BC during the show’s pre-production period, Frank’s free-spirited nature was on full display.
The adventure began as Frank, costume designer Ron Leamon and I headed north from Seattle in a 15-seat passenger van. Frank was driving and the radio was cranked up full volume while Frank demonstrated his best dance moves as he also attempted to keep the huge vehicle within the confines of a single lane. As always, Frank’s intention was to entertain and let his freak flag fly.
As we approached the Canadian border check point, Ron and I advised Frank to remove his sunglasses because they made him look all the more like a drug dealer. He laughed and dismissed our concern with an exaggerated stroke of his right hand as he continued edging the van toward the small booth where a Canadian customs officer was waiting. The male officer took Frank’s passport, and with a cursory glance at the sinister-looking character behind the sunglasses, told him to pull over and park in front of the customs station.
After a one-hour interrogation inside the station about our purpose for traveling to Canada, and a complete search of our personal luggage and all the nooks and crannies inside our vacuous vehicle, we were allowed to continue on to Vancouver. Ron and I were not amused by the ordeal, but Frank once again just laughed it off as yet another adventure.
Filming on Twin Peaks took place during the gray winter months on location in North Bend, a small Washington State mountain town about 25 miles east of Seattle, and often meant being wet, cold and miserable. However, these difficult work conditions, along with the wacky nature of the script, served to bring the crew members closer together in a spirit of common purpose and support.
‘Discovered’ in Laura’s Bedroom
Having worked with director David Lynch in North Carolina in 1986 on his critically acclaimed (but difficult to categorize) film Blue Velvet, I was familiar with his collaborative way of working. David would often let the story unfold organically as production commenced and had a penchant for on-the-spot cast additions and other changes to scenes as they were being filmed. While this tendency unnerved some crew members – since it meant never being sure what set pieces or props might be requested on the spot – I found it to be a more interesting way to work that relieved the boredom which often accompanied hours of waiting around on set while lighting and other technical aspects of filming were adjusted.
Enter Frank. As the onset dresser, Frank’s production job was to arrange and move furniture, always making way for the camera to capture just the right aspects of a scene in each frame. It was a job that allowed him to use his creative talents and always be near the action while the cameras were rolling.
While setting up the camera angles for a scene in Laura Palmer’s bedroom, Frank busied himself with adjusting the covers on Laura’s bed. While crouching at the foot of the bed, David suddenly exclaimed, “Frank, stay there and look up at the camera!” It was one of those eureka moments and from that point on Frank was cast as the dark character Killer Bob who became the primary suspect in the murder of the teenage Laura. [For those of you who are unfamiliar with the 2-hour Pilot for the Twin Peaks series, the plot – filled with plenty of trademark Lynchian twists and turns – revolves around the mystery of who murdered a small town high school homecoming queen named Laura Palmer.]
At the time, none of us could have guessed that Twin Peaks would eventually become so critically acclaimed and garner such a devoted cult following in both the USA and abroad, particularly appealing to viewers in such disparate places as France and Japan.
Soon after wrapping Twin Peaks, Ron and I worked again with Frank on a small independent film entitled One False Move, a project that took us from less than savory neighborhoods near downtown Los Angeles to the rural cotton fields of eastern Arkansas. While we talked often about the strange world of Twin Peaks, Frank’s fame had yet to be realized.
More “Twin Peaks,” plus Flamenco!
On another work odyssey to La-La-Land (as LA was known to those of us who found it necessary to work there occasionally but didn’t want to call it home), I joined some friends at Frank’s house for a dinner party. Like everything he did, Frank was a host who went to great lengths to entertain. He had moved from a small apartment to a lovely vintage stucco cottage in LA’s trendy Silver Lake neighborhood, a place where the monthly rental was almost surely out of reach for his intermittent pay checks.
Frank regaled us with stories about his sporadic appearances in the new episodes of the TV series and talked about the possibility of traveling to Japan with David Lynch to promote his Twin Peak’s character. On that evening, his antics produced reactions of both awe and hysteria as he entertained us with his newly acquired Flamenco skills.
I laughed so much that night while eating dinner that I was sick the next day, but the experience was worth every minute of discomfort. How absolutely perfect, I thought to myself, that this very flamboyant character should be studying such a passionate form of dance!
From Fame to Financial Ruin and Poor Health
Returning to my home base of Seattle, I lost touch with Frank for more than a year as work took me to other locations and Frank continued to enjoy the fleeting fame he had garnered as Killer Bob. I did hear from him a few times during this period; once to say he had indeed made the publicity trip to Japan – where all things Twin Peaks were adored – and again to say that he had been unsuccessful in finding more work as an actor.
By 1994, Frank was missing in action as his Los Angeles phone had been disconnected and mutual friends said they hadn’t seen or heard from him in ages. Unexpectedly, Ron and I both received calls from him on the same day. He relayed a story of financial and personal ruin, as his life had turned from one of hope and promise to dark depression and homelessness.
Frank told us he had been diagnosed as HIV-positive and was in the early stages of AIDS. As his health had deteriorated and work became increasingly scarce in LA, he had ended up being homeless for a period of time before returning to California’s Central Valley to stay with his aging mother. His voice was weak with an undisguised hint of desperation and his spirits low. It seemed clear that he wouldn’t last long in his current small town living situation where there were no services for those with AIDS.
Frank’s spirits immediately brightened when we asked if he would consider coming to Seattle to live. Washington State, and specifically Seattle, had been at the forefront of providing services for those stricken with this tragic disease and we felt sure this would be a much better situation where he could receive the care he needed plus have some degree of independence.
Ron and I, along with another local friend of Frank’s, Kristy Ewing – a graphic designer who had worked with Frank on Twin Peaks – set about putting the pieces of the puzzle together in order to allow Frank to take advantage of what Seattle’s organizations had to offer. Ron, above all, was instrumental in tracking down and plugging Frank into free meal programs, disability insurance, health cover and the final piece – a furnished apartment in a new building perfectly located near downtown that was heavily subsidized by the state. All Frank had to do was show up in person for the appointments.
Frank’s Final Year in Seattle
Seeing Frank again was quite a shock. I’d lost several friends to the ravages of AIDS so I was somewhat prepared for his gaunt appearance, but the saddest part was the near absence of his once exuberant spirit. It was as if the disease had robbed him of all the zest for life he once exuded in spades.
Frank settled into his new place and for the next year enjoyed having all the care he needed as his health continued to decline. Ron and I were both working on location out of state when we received a call that Frank had been found dead in his apartment.
While those of us who had been closest to Frank, including Ron and Kristy, were deeply saddened by his passing, he will forever live on in our memories as this audacious character who sought to squeeze every drop of joy out of his short existence on this planet.
Somewhere out there in this infinite universe, I can still feel the spirit of Frank Silva performing his most daring flamenco moves! Dance on Frank!
Finally, I’d like to express my deep gratitude to Washington State, the city of Seattle and numerous non-profit organizations for the generosity which enabled Frank to enjoy the last year of his life with full human dignity.