Chicago-born, distinguished U.S. actor and longtime civil rights campaigner, Robert Ryan served in the United States Marines as a drill sergeant (winning a boxing championship) and went on to become a key figure in post WWII American film noir and western productions.
Ryan grabbed critical attention for his dynamic performances as an anti-Semitic bully in the superb Crossfire (1947), as an over-the-hill boxer who refuses to take a fall in The Set-Up (1949) and as a hostile & jaded cop in On Dangerous Ground (1952). Ryan's athletic physique, intense gaze and sharply delivered, authoritarian tones made him an ideal actor for the oily world of the film noir genre, and he contributed solid performances to many noir features, usually as a vile villain. Ryan played a worthy opponent for bounty hunter James Stewart in the Anthony Mann directed western The Naked Spur (1953), he locked horns with an intrepid investigator Spencer Tracy in the suspenseful Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and starred alongside Harry Belafonte in the grimy, gangster flick Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). Plus, the inventive Ryan excelled as the ruthless "John Claggart" in Billy Budd (1962), and two different WWII US generals - first in the star-filled The Longest Day (1962) and then in Battle of the Bulge (1965).
For the next eight years prior to his untimely death in 1973, Ryan landed some tremendous roles in a mixture of productions each aided by his high-caliber acting skills leaving strong impressions on movie audiences. He was one of the hard men hired to pursue kidnapped Claudia Cardinale in the hard boiled action of The Professionals (1966), a by-the-book army colonel clashing with highly unorthodox army major Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen (1967), and an embittered bounty hunter (again) forced to hunt down old friend William Holden in the violent Sam Peckinpah western classic The Wild Bunch (1969). Ryan's final on-screen performance was in the terrific production of The Iceman Cometh (1973) based on the Eugene O'Neill play and also starring Lee Marvin and Fredric March.
Legend has it that Sam Peckinpah clashed very heatedly with Ryan during the making of The Wild Bunch (1969); however Peckinpah eventually backed down when a crew member reminded Sam of Robert Ryan's proficiency with his fists!
Primarily a man of pacifist beliefs, Ryan often found it a challenge playing sadistic and racist characters that very much were at odds with his own personal ideals. Additionally, Ryan actively campaigned for improved civil rights, restricting the growth of nuclear weapons, and he strongly opposed McCarthyism and its abuse of innocent people. A gifted, intelligent and powerful actor, Robert Ryan passed away on July 11th, 1973 of lung cancer.
|Jessica Cadwalader||(11 March 1939 - 1972) (her death) 3 children|
Often played stern authority figures, in sharp contrast to his real life persona.
Often played serious, temperamental men of action.
Narrow eyes, frequently used to a menacing effect.
His tall, powerful boxer's physique.
Originally intended to portray "Commodore Matt Decker" in the "Star Trek" (1966) (the original series) episode "Doomsday Machine", but was unable to do so. The character was intended as a Captain Ahab-type, obsessed with revenge for the loss of his crew. The role instead went to William Windom who portrayed Decker in a more tragic, sensitive light.
Initially planned on studying at the Pasadena Playhouse, but instead became a student of Max Reinhardt in the late 1930s, where he met fellow student and future wife Jessica Cadwalader. Following their marriage, she gave up her acting aspirations and later became a children's fiction-book writer.
While performing in a stock play version of "A Kiss for Cinderella" in 1941 with actress Luise Rainer, Rainer's ex-husband, Clifford Odets, saw him and offered him the featured juvenile part in his Broadway play "Clash by Night" as "Joe Doyle", opposite Tallulah Bankhead. A decade later he starred in the film version but had outgrown the juvenile role and instead played Earl Pfeiffer, one of the leads, originated on Broadway by Joseph Schildkraut. His "Joe Doyle" character was played by Keith Andes in the film Clash by Night (1952).
In 1973, he played the terminally-ill political activist Larry Slade in The Iceman Cometh (1973). Ironically, while filming, he knew he was approaching the final stages of lung cancer and died in July of that year. His wife Jessica had died just the year before, also succumbing to cancer.
Due to his towering frame, cruelly-lined face and a simmering intensity uncommon in his generation of "tough guys", he usually played hateful villains. Even on the rare occasions that he played a good guy, they often possessed a violent, obsessive personality that was a tad unsettling.
Two sons, Walker (born April 13, 1946) and Cheyney (born March 10, 1948), and a daughter, Lisa (born September 10, 1951).
At the time he was diagnosed with cancer, he was scheduled to play "Don Quixote" in a film version of Miguel Cervantes' novel. It was Rex Harrison, however, who was finally seen as the Don in a 1973 made-for-television film of the book, a year after Peter O'Toole had starred in the film version (Man of La Mancha (1972)) of the Broadway musical "Man of La Mancha".
Co-founded the Theatre Group at the University of California at Los Angeles with John Houseman and Sidney Harmon in 1959. Nine years later in 1968 he co-founded the Plumstead Playhouse Repertory Company, with Henry Fonda and Martha Scott.
Was Turner Classic Movies' "Star of the Month" for February 2000, a rare honor for a character lead/supporting player.
Served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1944 to 1947.
When casting the leading man role in the 1943 Ginger Rogers vehicle Tender Comrade (1943), RKO producer David Hempstead became interested in Ryan due to favorable preview cards hailing Ryan's performances in Bombardier (1943), The Sky's the Limit (1943) and Behind the Rising Sun (1943). He suggested him to Rogers, who was at first unimpressed after screening parts of the three movies. She turned him down as her leading man, as she thought he looked mean and, at 6'4", too big. A week later, when Rogers visited Hempstead at his office, he was busily going through preview cards of "The Sky's the Limit" and showed her some of them. Rogers saw that all the reviews of Ryan's performance were favorable and, since principal production was drawing near, she decided to have another look at him. Ryan was conveniently waiting in a nearby office for just such a possibility. Less than a minute later he came to the office and talked with both the producer and Rogers. After a few moments, she unobtrusively slipped Hempstead a note: "I think this is the guy." Today, the note hangs on the wall above Cheyney Ryan's (Ryan's son) desk in his study.
Campaigned for Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 Democratic primaries.
At Dartmouth College, Ryan was on the boxing team and posted a 5-0 (3 knockouts) record. He also worked on the campus newspaper, and campaigned against Prohibition.
He was a founder of SANE (an anti-nuclear action group) and a vocal supporter of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten during the 1950s.
His Shakespearean roles included "Antony and Cleopatra" with Katharine Hepburn in 1960, and the title role of "Othello" at the Nottingham Playhouse in England, also in the '60s.
Shortly before his death from lung cancer at the age of sixty-three, Ryan publicly denounced his heavy use of cigarettes as the cause of his illness.
His son, Cheyney C. Ryan, is a Research Fellow at Oxford University and a professor of Philosophy and Law at the University of Oregon. As a Harvard undergraduate, he was expelled due to his fervent activism in the civil rights and anti-war movements.
When he was 26, his father died after being hit by a car.
When he was eight years old, his younger brother died from the flu.
He has three grandchildren, Tammy, Lisa, and Jeff from his son Cheyney.
His grand-daughter Katharine, by his son, Walker, is a Research Associate at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) in Portland, Oregon. She is named after her godmother, Katharine Hepburn.
A close friend of Lee Marvin.
According to his RKO biography, Ryan worked as a 'sandhog, seaman, sewer builder, salesman, miner, cowboy, bodyguard-chauffeur to a mobster, photographer's model, W.P.A. laborer and paving supervisor'.
Helped start Oakwood, a prestigious Los Angeles school.
[on why he never became a target of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the Red-baiting HUAC, despite being known for his left-of-center politics] I was involved in the things he was throwing rocks at but I was never a target. Looking back, I suspect my Irish name, my being a Catholic and an ex-Marine sort of softened the blow.
[on being listed as one of the screen's all-time best heavies] I guess they never saw me in most of my pictures. Still, I've never stopped working so I can't complain.
[on young actors] Each one assumes that his mere presence is God's gift to humanity and he finds out over the years that this isn't the case, but that the acquisition of the skills is equally important. You find out that the essence of it is simplification.
[on the 'amazing experience' of old Hollywood] The conformity of the material was a problem, true. But the old system had virtues. [They] would gamble once in a while on an offbeat picture... We all had to go to film school, and we worked in hordes of pictures - B pictures - which were shot very fast.
(August 2011) New York City, NY, USA: Film Forum screening a series of two dozen Ryan movies.
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