Long John Silver is a cunning and opportunistic pirate who was quartermaster under the notorious Captain Flint. Long John Silver had a pet parrot called Captain Flint, often seen sitting on his shoulder where she would nibble on seeds. Silver claims to have served in the Royal Navy and lost his leg under "the immortal Hawke". "His left leg was cut off close by the hip, and under the left shoulder he carried a crutch, which he managed with wonderful dexterity, hopping about upon it like a bird. He was very tall and strong, with a face as big as a ham – plain and pale, but intelligent and smiling." (Treasure Island (1883) by Robert Louis Stevenson page 82). He claims to have been the only man whom Flint ever feared. Like many of Stevenson's characters, there is more than a modicum of duality in the character; ostensibly Silver is a hardworking and likeable seaman, and it is only as the plot unfolds that his villainous nature is gradually revealed. His relationship with Jim Hawkins, the novel's protagonist and narrator, is interesting, as he serves as a mentor and eventually father-figure to Jim, creating much shock and emotion when it is discovered that he is in charge of the mutiny, and especially when Jim must confront and fight him later on. Although willing to change sides at any time to further his own interests, Silver has compensating virtues: he is wise enough to pay attention to money management, in contrast to the spendthrift ways of most of the pirates, and is physically courageous despite his disability; for instance, when Flint's cache is found to be empty, he coolly stands his ground against five grown men despite having only Jim, a boy in his teens, to back him.
When Silver escapes at the end of the novel, he takes "three or four hundred guineas" of the treasure with him, thus becoming one of only two former members of Captain Flint's crew to get his hands on a portion of the recovered treasure; a separate cache of bar silver is apparently left on the island. (The repentant maroonee Ben Gunn is the other, but he spends all £1,000 in nineteen days.) Jim's own ambivalence towards Silver is reflected in the last chapter, when he speculates that the old pirate must have settled down in comfortable retirement: "It is to be hoped so, I suppose, for his chances of comfort in another world are very small."
Stevenson's portrayal of Silver has greatly influenced the modern iconography of the pirate. Silver has a parrot, named Captain Flint in honor—or mockery—of his former captain, who generally perches on Silver's shoulder, and is known to chatter pirate or seafaring phrases like "Pieces of Eight", and "Stand by to go about". Silver uses the parrot as another means of gaining Jim's trust, by telling the boy all manner of exciting stories (many of them likely fake) about the parrot's buccaneer history. "'Now that bird,' Silver would say, 'is, may be, two hundred years old, Hawkins—they live forever mostly, and if anybody's seen more wickedness it must be the devil himself. She's sailed with England—the great Cap'n England, the pirate. She's been at Madagascar, and at Malabar, and Surinam, and Providence, and Portobello... She was at the boarding of the Viceroy of the Indies out of Goa, she was, and to look at her you would think she was a baby."
Silver is married to a woman of African descent, whom he trusts to manage his business affairs in his absence and to liquidate his Bristol assets when his actions make it impossible for him to go home. He confides in his fellow pirates, that he and his wife plan to rendezvous after the voyage to Skeleton Island is complete and Flint's treasure is recovered, at which point Silver will retire to a life of luxury. Ironically his "share" of Flint's treasure (£400) is considerably less than that of Ben Gunn's share (£1,000) and what he himself boasts is his "share" from England (£900) and from Flint (£2,000).
According to Stevenson's letters, the idea for the character of Long John Silver was inspired by his real-life friend William Henley, a writer and editor. Stevenson's stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, described Henley as "...a great, glowing, massive-shouldered fellow with a big red beard and a crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever, and with a laugh that rolled like music; he had an unimaginable fire and vitality; he swept one off one's feet". In a letter to Henley after the publication of Treasure Island Stevenson wrote: "I will now make a confession. It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver...the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you".
A prequel novel to Treasure Island, Porto Bello Gold was published in 1924 by Arthur D. Howden Smith.
British historian Dennis Judd presents Silver as the main character in his 1977 prequel, The Adventures of Long John Silver, and in the 1979 sequel, Return To Treasure Island.
John Silver is also the protagonist in Björn Larsson's fictional 1995 autobiography, Long John Silver: The True and Eventful History of My Life of Liberty and Adventure as a Gentleman of Fortune and Enemy to Mankind, published in Sweden in 1995.
Silver is the main character in Edward Chupack's 2008 Silver—My Own Tale as Told by Me with a Goodly Amount of Murder.
James Kennedy played Silver in the Tale Spinners for Children audio adaptation of Treasure Island. Tom Baker starred as Silver in Big Finish Productions' 2012 audio adaptation.
Tom Baker played Treasure Island on stage at the Mermaid Theatre, London in 1981.
Charles Ogle played Silver in the 1920 silent film adaptation of Treasure Island. Wallace Beery was the first speaking Long John Silver in the 1934 film version of Treasure Island. Robert Newton became a definitive Long John Silver in the 1950 Disney live-action film version of Treasure Island. Reportedly, the writers of this piece, and Newton, were the first to present the phrase "Arrrrrh, matey!". A 1954 film, Long John Silver, again starred Robert Newton as the title character, which he would reprise in television (see below).
The 1971 anime film Dōbutsu Takarajima depicts Silver as an anthropomorphic pig that captains his own pirate ship, sporting a hook prosthesis on his left hand rather than a missing leg. In the Soviet animated film Treasure Island of 1988, Armen Dzhigarkhanyan provided the voice talent for John Silver.
Orson Welles portrayed Silver in the 1972 live action film, Treasure Island.
In the 1994 movie The Pagemaster, the character of Silver is voiced by Jim Cummings. Tim Curry portrays Long John Silver in Disney's 1996 musical film Muppet Treasure Island. Jack Palance, in one of his last film appearances, portrays Silver in the 1999 film, Treasure Island. Silver is voiced by Brian Murray and depicted as an obese bear/human/robot-like cyborg in Disney 2002 animated science fiction adventure film, Treasure Planet. Tobias Moretti played Silver in the 2007 German production of Treasure Island, entitled Die Schatzinsel.
Actors who have portrayed Long John Silver in the various further motion picture adaptations of Treasure Island include Ivo Garrani, Lance Henriksen, and Boris Andreyev.
Orson Welles played Silver in The Mercury Theatre on the Air adaptation of Treasure Island that was broadcast in July 18, 1938. William Redfield played Silver on the May 14, 1948 Your Playhouse of Favorites adaptation. James Mason played Silver opposite Bobby Driscoll's "Jim Hawkins" on the Lux Radio Theatre's adaptation of that broadcast on January 29, 1951.
There have been two later BBC Radio adaptations of Treasure Island, with Silver being played by Peter Jeffrey in the one in 1989, and starring Jack Shepherd in the one in 1996.
Ivor Dean played the character in an acclaimed European four-part mini-series in 1966. He intended to reprise the role in another series with more adventures of Silver. He began writing it with director Robert S. Baker, but his sudden death in 1974 stopped all further plans. Robert Newton reprised his feature film presentations of Silver in the 1957 television series, The Adventures of Long John Silver.
A Soviet miniseries, the 1982 Treasure Island, had Silver portrayed by Oleg Borisov. In 1985, the Ivor Dean script mentioned above was used as foundation for a Disney 10-part TV-series called Return to Treasure Island, starring Brian Blessed in the role of Long John Silver. Charlton Heston portrayed a darker Long John Silver in the 1990 made-for-television movie, Treasure Island.
Eddie Izzard played Long John Silver in the 2012 Sky mini-series.
Luke Arnold plays John Silver in the Starz TV series Black Sails (2014-2017), a prequel story set 20 years before Treasure Island. Silver, in Black Sails, begins as a scheming cook who rises to serve as quartermaster (on the Walrus, and on a captured Spanish Man O' War), later to lead the pirate and former-slave forces that attempt to re-take Nassau from the British.
Robert Newton followed up his two feature films with an Australian-produced TV series on Long John Silver.
BBC1 has presented the story four times, with Anthony Quinn, Bernard Miles, Peter Vaughan, and Alfred Burke in the role. British actor Ivor Dean also played Silver in a televised version of the novel.
Costas Mandylor portrays Captain Silver on ABC's Once Upon a Time.
A Ballad of John Silver, a poem from John Masefield, was published in 1921.
Long John Silver is a Franco-Belgian comics series written by Xavier Dorison and illustrated by Mathieu Laufray which was published in French and English.
John Silver, a fictional space pirate with mechanical leg who appears in the Italian comic book Nathan Never, was inspired by Long John Silver.
The rock band Jefferson Airplane had a song and 1972 album named Long John Silver.
A restaurant chain, Long John Silver's, is named after the character.