Robert Ryan in Marine Raiders (1944)
Robert Bushnell Ryan
November 11, 1909
Chicago, Illinois, United States
|Died||July 11, 1973 (aged 63)|
New York City, United States
(m. 1939; died 1972)
Robert Bushnell Ryan (November 11, 1909 – July 11, 1973) was an American actor who most often portrayed hardened cops and ruthless villains. He worked in theater and films. Ryan acted for over three decades and received one nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Crossfire (1947).
Ryan was born in Chicago, Illinois, the first child of Mable Arbutus (Bushnell), a secretary, and Timothy Aloysius Ryan, who was from a wealthy family who owned a real estate firm.:p.4 He was of Irish (his paternal grandparents were from Thurles) and English descent. Ryan was raised Catholic and educated at Loyola Academy. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1932, having held the school's heavyweight boxing title for all four years of his attendance, along with lettering in football and track. After graduation, the 6?4" Ryan found employment as a stoker on a ship that traveled to Africa, a WPA worker, and a ranch hand in Montana, among other odd jobs. He returned home in 1936 when his father died, and after a brief stint modeling clothes for a department store, he decided to become an actor.
In 1937 Ryan joined a little theater group in Chicago. The following year he enrolled in the Max Reinhardt Workshop in Hollywood. His role in the 1939 play Too Many Husbands brought an offer from Paramount. Although he had done a screen test for them in 1938 and been turned down as "not the right type", the studio offered him a $75 a week contract.
In November 1939 Paramount signed Ryan to a six month contract. They announced he would play the lead in Golden Gloves, citing his boxing experience at Dartmouth. After a screen test with Gloves director Edward Dmytryk, the lead went to Richard Denning, but Ryan was cast in a minor but important role as a boxing "ringer". Ryan had his first credited role in Golden Gloves (1940) and a lasting association with the director. They would go on to make several films together.
In the same year, Ryan had small parts in The Ghost Breakers (1940) and Queen of the Mob (1940). Ryan also had small roles in North West Mounted Police (1941) and Texas Rangers Ride Again (1941). Then Paramount dropped him.
He went to Broadway, where he was cast in a production of Clifford Odets' Clash by Night (1941-42), directed by Lee Strasberg and produced by Billy Rose starring Tallulah Bankhead and Lee J. Cobb. It had a run of 49 performances, but was high-profile and led to him being signed to a long-term contract by RKO.
He was fourth-billed in Behind the Rising Sun (1943), directed by Dmytryk, which was a huge box-office success. Ryan was third-billed in The Iron Major (1943), with O'Brien, and Gangway for Tomorrow (1943).
RKO promoted him to star status in Tender Comrade (1943), where he was Ginger Rogers's leading man, directed for the third time by Dymytryk. It was a big hit. Also popular was Marine Raiders (1944), which Ryan co-starred again alongside O'Brien.
Ryan enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and served as a drill instructor at Camp Pendleton, located between Oceanside and San Clemente in Southern California. At Camp Pendleton, he befriended writer and future director Richard Brooks, whose novel, The Brick Foxhole, he greatly admired. He also took up painting. His military service was from January 1944 to November 1945.
When Ryan was discharged from the Marine Corps, he returned to RKO. They immediately cast Ryan in a Randolph Scott western, Trail Street (1947), which was very popular. However, his next film made with Joan Bennett, The Woman on the Beach (1947), lost money; it was directed by Jean Renoir.
Ryan's breakthrough film role was as an anti-Semitic killer in Crossfire (1947), a film noir based on Brooks' novel, directed by Dmytryk and co-starring Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, and Gloria Grahame. The role won Ryan his only Academy Award nomination, for Best Supporting Actor. The film was highly successful at the box office.
Ryan co-starred with Merle Oberon in Berlin Express (1948) for director Jacques Tourneur; it was the first movie made in Germany after the end of second world war. He was reunited with Scott in Return of the Bad Men (1948), and with O'Brien in The Boy with Green Hair (1948). The latter film was directed by Joseph Losey and produced by Dore Schary, who was head of production at RKO.
Back at RKO, Ryan had one of his best roles in The Set-Up (1949), directed by Robert Wise, as an over-the-hill boxer who is brutally punished for refusing to take a dive. The Set-Up was a favorite of Ryan's. He was top billed in The Woman on Pier 13 (1949), an anti-communist melodrama directed by Robert Stevenson, that was made at the prompting of RKO's new owner, Howard Hughes.
Ryan appeared in some film noirs: The Secret Fury (1950) with Claudette Colbert directed by Mel Ferrer, and Born to Be Bad (1950) directed by Nicholas Ray. In 1950 the studio bought The Miami Story as a vehicle for him.
He then made a Western, Best of the Badmen (1951), and a war film with John Wayne, Flying Leathernecks (1951), directed by Ray. It was announced he was working on an original film story called The Alpine Slide about avalanches, but no film resulted.
Ryan was reunited with Robert Mitchum, his Crossfire co star, in The Racket (1951), directed by John Cromwell. He made another film noir for Nicholas Ray, On Dangerous Ground (1951), with Ida Lupino, then the film adaptation of Clash by Night (1952) with Barbara Stanwyck and Marilyn Monroe under Fritz Lang. According to David Thomson, "at RKO Ryan created the character of a modern neurotic such as the American screen had not dreamed of before."
His last film at RKO for a number of years was Beware, My Lovely (1952) with Lupino, made for her production company.
He was the leading man for Shirley Booth in About Mrs. Leslie (1954) and Greer Garson in Her Twelve Men (1954). The latter was made at MGM, now being run by RKO's previous studio head, Dore Schary. Schary cast Ryan as the head villain in Bad Day at Black Rock (1954).
Ryan returned to RKO for Escape to Burma (1955) with Stanwyck. More widely seen was Sam Fuller's House of Bamboo (1955) and Raoul Walsh's The Tall Men (1955), both at Fox. By now his fee was reported as $150,000 a film.
Ryan made his television debut in 1955 as Abraham Lincoln in the Screen Director's Playhouse adaptation of Christopher Morley's story "Lincoln's Doctor's Dog." As he explained to reporters, despite financial considerations, Ryan preferred to steer clear of any commitment to a TV series:
The only money in TV is in the series, and I want to stay out of those. Sure, I might make a million or so in a series, but I'd wind up being 'Sidewinder Sam' for the rest of my life.
Ryan would remain true to these convictions, appearing in many television series, but always as a guest star. He was in Screen Directors Playhouse, Mr. Adams and Eve, Goodyear Theatre, Alcoa Theatre, Playhouse 90 (playing The Great Gatsby), and Zane Grey Theater.
He continued to star in features, however, including God's Little Acre (1958) for Mann and Security Pictures, Lonelyhearts (1959) written and produced by Schary, Day of the Outlaw (1959) for Security Pictures, and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) for Wise.
Ryan narrated the CBS television documentary series World War One that aired from September 1964 to September 1965.
Ryan remained in high demand throughout the 1960s: he appeared in Ice Palace (1960) with Richard Burton; a TV version of The Snows of Kilimanjaro directed by John Frankenheimer; The Canadians (1961) for Burt Kennedy; played John the Baptist in MGM's Technicolor epic King of Kings (1961) for Nicholas Ray; was the villainous Claggart in Peter Ustinov's adaptation of Billy Budd (1962).
Ryan continued to appear in TV shows such as Kraft Suspense Theatre, Breaking Point, The Eleventh Hour, Wagon Train, The Reporter and Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre. Ryan's only partial concession to featuring in an entire television series was his role as Narrator in CBS's 26-episode acclaimed documentary homage to World War One, released in prime-time during the 1964-65 season.
Ryan never appeared in Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, but he was considered for the role of Commodore Matt Decker in the 1967 episode "The Doomsday Machine". Episode author Norman Spinrad had written the script with Ryan in mind to play Commodore Decker, but Ryan had prior commitments. That role went to William Windom.
Ryan went to Europe for A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die (1968) and Anzio (1969) for Dmytryk. He had a good support role in The Wild Bunch (1969) for Sam Peckinpah. Ryan had the lead in Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969).
Ryan returned to the stage in a revival of The Front Page. It was one of the first productions developed by the Plumstead Playhouse (later the Plumstead Theatre Company), a Long Island-based repertory company founded by Ryan, Martha Scott and Henry Fonda; the following winter, a film of the production (produced jointly by MPC and Plumstead) would be broadcast nationally over the upstart Hughes TV Network.
In 1970 Ryan discovered he had inoperable cancer of the lymph glands (he was a smoker). He decided to keep working, and said, "I've had a good shot at life." 
He originally refused the lead in Lolly-Madonna XXX (1973) with Rod Steiger because he wanted to take his wife to Europe, but she died of cancer in May 1972, and he ended up playing the part. "Something very big is missing and I don't know what to put in its place," he said.
Ryan's final roles included: The Man Without a Country (1973), a TV movie for Delbert Mann; The Outfit (1973) with Robert Duvall; Executive Action (1973) with Lancaster, from a script by Dalton Trumbo; and a version of The Iceman Cometh (1973) with Lee Marvin and director Frankenheimer. Ryan, who died before the latter's premiere, won the Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor, the National Board of Review Award for Best Actor (in a tie with Al Pacino, for Serpico), and a special award from the National Society of Film Critics.The Iceman Cometh and Executive Action both were released in November 1973, after Ryan's death.
In the late-1940s, as the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) intensified its anti-Communist attacks on Hollywood, he joined the short-lived Committee for the First Amendment. Throughout the 1950s, he donated money and services to civic and religious organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, American Friends Service Committee, and United World Federalists. In September 1959, he and Steve Allen became founding co-chairs of The Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy's Hollywood chapter.
By the mid-1960s, Ryan's political activities included efforts to fight racial discrimination. He served in the cultural division of the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and, with Bill Cosby, Robert Culp, Sidney Poitier, and other actors, helped organize the short-lived Artists Help All Blacks.:p.132
Ryan was often vocal about the dichotomy of his personal beliefs and his acting roles. At a screening of Odds Against Tomorrow, he appeared before the press to discuss "the problems of an actor like me playing the kind of character that in real life he finds totally despicable." Ryan's roles as cynical, prejudiced, violent characters, often ran counter to the causes he embraced. He was a pacifist who starred in war movies, westerns, and violent thrillers. He was an opponent of McCarthyism, but appeared in the anti-communist propaganda film I Married a Communist, playing a nefarious communist agent. In socially progressive films such as Crossfire, Bad Day at Black Rock, Odds Against Tomorrow and Executive Action, he played bigoted villains or conspirators.
On March 11, 1939, he married Jessica Cadwalader. They had three children: Timothy (b. 1946); Cheyney (b. 1948), a research fellow at Oxford University and a professor of philosophy and law at the University of Oregon; and Lisa (b. 1951). They lived in the Manhattan co-op The Dakota at 72nd and Central Park West and eventually sub-let the apartment to John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
In the fall of 1951, the progressive Oakwood school was opened in Jessica and Robert Ryan's backyard; founded by a small group of parents, created and based on their educational and child-rearing views. Three years later, the parents, including the Ryans, Sidney Harmon, Elizabeth Schappert, Wendy and Ross Cabeen, and Charles and Emilie Haas, bought and built the elementary school campus on Moorpark Street in Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley.
"I've been lucky as hell with my career and my family," he said shortly before he died.
According to one profile of him written after his death:
Born to play beautifully tortured, angry souls... Ryan was a familiar movie face for more than two decades in Hollywood's classical years, his studio ups and downs, independent detours and outlier adventures paralleling the arc of American cinema as it went from a national pastime to near collapse. A little prettier and he might have been one of the golden boys of the golden age. But there could be something a touch menacing about his face (something open and sweet too), which bunched as tight as a fist, and his towering height (he stood 6 foot 4) at times loomed like a threat. The rage boiled up in him so quickly. It made him seem dangerous. He was known for his villains, and it was the complexity of these characters, their emotional and psychological kinks, that elevated even his lesser roles. He never achieved the supernova stardom of a Gable or Bogart, and these days Ryan's glower may be more familiar than his name. Yet he was the type of next-level star and B-movie stalwart that helped make old Hollywood great.
|1940||The Ghost Breakers||Intern (uncredited)||Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard|
|1940||Queen of the Mob||Jim|
|1940||Golden Gloves||Pete Wells|
|1940||North West Mounted Police||Constable Dumont||Gary Cooper|
|1940||The Texas Rangers Ride Again||Eddie (uncredited)|
|1943||Bombardier||Joe Connors||Randolph Scott|
|1943||The Sky's the Limit||Reginald Fenton||Fred Astaire|
|1943||Behind the Rising Sun||Lefty O'Doyle|
|1943||The Iron Major||Father Timothy 'Tim' Donovan|
|1943||Gangway for Tomorrow||Joe Dunham|
|1943||Tender Comrade||Chris Jones|
|1944||Marine Raiders||Capt. Dan Craig|
|1947||The Woman on the Beach||Scott||directed by Jean Renoir|
|1947||Crossfire||Montgomery||Robert Mitchum and Robert Young|
|1948||Berlin Express||Robert Lindley|
|1948||Return of the Bad Men||Sundance Kid|
|1948||The Boy with Green Hair||Dr. Evans|
|1948||Act of Violence||Joe Parkson|
|1949||Caught||Smith Ohlrig||James Mason|
|1949||I Married a Communist||Brad Collins|
|1950||The Secret Fury||David Mclean||Claudette Colbert|
|1950||Born to Be Bad||Nick||Joan Fontaine|
|1951||Hard, Fast and Beautiful||Seabright Tennis Match Spectator (uncredited)|
|1951||Best of the Badmen||Jeff Clanton|
|1951||Flying Leathernecks||Capt. Carl 'Griff' Griffin||John Wayne|
|1951||The Racket||Nick Scanlon||Robert Mitchum and Lizabeth Scott|
|1951||On Dangerous Ground||Jim Wilson||Ida Lupino|
|1952||Clash by Night||Earl Pfeiffer|
|1952||Beware, My Lovely||Howard Wilton|
|1952||Horizons West||Dan Hammond|
|1953||The Naked Spur||Ben Vandergroat||James Stewart|
|1953||City Beneath the Sea||Brad Carlton|
|1953||Inferno||Donald Whitley Carson III|
|1954||Alaska Seas||Matt Kelly|
|1954||About Mrs. Leslie||George Leslie||Shirley Booth|
|1954||Her Twelve Men||Joe Hargrave|
|1955||Bad Day at Black Rock||Reno Smith||Spencer Tracy and Lee Marvin|
|1955||House of Bamboo||Jim Brecam|
|1955||Escape to Burma||Sandy Dawson|
|1955||The Tall Men||Nathan Stark||Clark Gable and Jane Russell|
|1956||The Proud Ones||Marshal Cass Silver|
|1956||Back from Eternity||Bill Lonagan||Anita Ekberg and Rod Steiger|
|1957||Men in War||Lt. Benson||Aldo Ray|
|1958||Lonelyhearts||William Shrike||Montgomery Clift|
|1958||God's Little Acre||Ty Ty Walden|
|1959||Day of the Outlaw||Blaise Starrett|
|1959||Odds Against Tomorrow||Earle Slater|
|1960||Ice Palace||Thor Storm||Richard Burton|
|1961||The Canadians||Inspector William Gannon|
|1961||King of Kings||John the Baptist|
|1962||The Longest Day||Brig. Gen. James M. Gavin||John Wayne|
|1962||Billy Budd||John Claggart- Master at Arms||Peter Ustinov|
|1964||World War One||Narrator||(1964-1965, TV series)|
|1965||The Crooked Road||Richard Ashley|
|1965||The Dirty Game||General Bruce|
|1965||Battle of the Bulge||Gen. Grey||Henry Fonda|
|1966||The Professionals||Ehrengard||Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin|
|1967||The Busy Body||Charley Barker|
|1967||The Dirty Dozen||Col. Everett Dasher Breed||Lee Marvin|
|1967||Hour of the Gun||Ike Clanton||James Garner and Jason Robards, Jr.|
|1967||Custer of the West||Sgt. Patrick Mulligan|
|1968||A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die||New Mexico Gov. Lem Carter|
|1968||Anzio||General Carson||Robert Mitchum and Peter Falk|
|1969||The Wild Bunch||Deke Thornton||William Holden and Ernest Borgnine|
|1969||Captain Nemo and the Underwater City||Captain Nemo|
|1971||Lawman||Marshall Sabbath Cotton Ryan||Burt Lancaster|
|1971||The Love Machine||Gregory 'Greg' Austin|
|1972||... and Hope to Die||Charley Ellis|
|1973||Lolly-Madonna XXX||Pap Gutshall|
|1973||Executive Action||Robert Foster||Burt Lancaster|
|1973||The Iceman Cometh||Larry Slade||Lee Marvin|