Born November 11, 1909 in Chicago, Illinois, Robert Ryan graduated Dartmouth College in 1932, having held the school’s heavyweight boxing championship all four years of his attendance. After graduation he found work as a sandhog, seaman, sewer builder, salesman, miner, cowboy, bodyguard-chauffeur to a mobster, photographer’s model, W.P.A. laborer and paving supervisor before turning to acting.
On screen in minor roles from 1940, he had his first lead opposite Ginger Rogers in 1943’s Tender Comrade before enlisting in the Marines in 1944 where he worked as a drill sergeant at Camp Pendleton.
His post-war career took off with 1947’s The Woman on the Beach opposite Joan Bennett and Crossfire for which he received his first and only Oscar nomination as the film’s anti-Semitic bully. Although this role is probably the one he is most associated with, the off-screen Ryan was more like the articulate liberal he played in 1948’s The Boy With Green Hair.
One of the stalwarts of post-war films noir, Ryan excelled in such films as Act of Violence; The Set-Up; The Woman on Pier 13; Born to Be Bad; Hard, Fast and Beautiful; The Racket; On Dangerous Ground; Clash by Night and Beware, My Lovely among others in a four year period from 1949 through 1952. He also starred alongside John Wayne, whose politics he abhorred, in 1951’s Flying Leathernecks. Although an outspoken critic of McCarthyism and the Hollywood witch hunts, Ryan himself was never a target.
Although he had been in westerns before, it was 1953’s The Naked Spur opposite James Stewart and 1955’s Bad Day at Black Rock opposite Spencer Tracy that established him as one of the genre’s pre-eminent villains.
A long time New York resident, Ryan was equally familiar to theatregoers and TV watchers throughout the next two decades, while still remaining highly visible on the large screen in such films as Back From Eternity; Lonelyhearts; God’s Little Acre; Odds Against Tomorrow; Ice Palace; King of Kings (as John the Baptist); The Longest Day; Billy Budd; The Battle of the Bulge; The Dirty Dozen and The Wild Bunch.
Ryan’s wife Jessica Cadawaler, whom he had married in 1939, passed away from cancer in 1972. Ryan, himself in the final stages of lung cancer, appeared in five films in 1973, three of them, The Outfit; Executive Action and The Iceman Cometh released after his death on July 11, 1973 at the age of 63. The Iceman Cometh, in which he played a terminally ill character, is particularly poignant.
Shortly before his death Ryan leased his apartment in New York’s famed Dakota to John Lennon and Yoko Ono. His estate sold it them after his death.
CROSSFIRE (1947), directed by Edward Dmytryk
While serving as a marine drill sergeant at San Diego’s Camp Pendleton, Ryan befriended writer and future Hollywood director Richard Brooks whose 1945 novel The Brick Foxhole he admired. Cast in the film version with two other Roberts – Young and Mitchum, Ryan had one of the great villainous roles of all time as a vicious, bigoted killer. A homophobe who murders a gay man in the novel, the character became an anti-Semite who murders a Jewish man in the film version. Ryan was nominated for an Oscar but lost to Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle in Mircale on 34th Street.
THE SET-UP (1949), directed by Robert Wise
Relying on his background as a heavyweight champion of two decades earlier, Ryan excels as an over-the-hill boxer in this seedy melodrama in which his character, unbeknownst to himself, never has a chance. Audrey Totter excels as his anxious wife and George Tobias, Alan Baxter, Wallace Ford, Percy Helton and Darryl Hickman provide memorable support.
This was one of many films noir in which Ryan excelled in a four year period from 1949 through 1952.
BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955), directed by John Sturges
The consummate Hollywood liberal off screen, Ryan was the consummate exemplar of seething prejudice on screen, seldom more so than in this blistering attack on those who stand by and do nothing while evil prevails. The description of standing by, however, fits Walter Brennan and Dean Jagger, not Ryan, who is the film’s arch villain vs. one-armed Spencer Tracy who comes to town to deliver a posthumous medal of honor to the Japanese-American father of a downed soldier.
THE WILD BUNCH (1969), directed by Sam Peckinpah
In a reversal of his usual role as the villain in westerns, Ryan plays the film’s one sympathetic character, a bounty hunter and former partner of villain William Holden in Peckinpah’s legendary violent film which turned the industry on its head.
Oscar winners Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Edmond O’Brien all have memorable late career roles as the film’s savage villains, but Ryan steals the show as a man who abhors violence even as he uses it to justify his ends.
Legend has it that Peckinpah and Ryan clashed on set, with Peckinpah backing down only after a crew member reminded him of Ryan’s proficiency with his fists.
THE ICEMAN COMETH (1973), directed by John Frankenheimer
The Academy’s rule of disallowing Oscar nominations for films shown for less than six consecutive days in a Los Angeles area theatre kept Ryan’s magnificent performance from being eligible for a posthumous nomination. Produced by the American Film Theatre, the film was shown for just two days in select theatres in select cities throughout the country.
Eugene O’Neill’s four hour long play set in a bar-room is difficult to produce and difficult to sit through, but is a rewarding experience nonetheless, especially in this version in which the terminally ill Ryan plays a disillusioned dying man at odds with reformed alcoholic Lee Marvin. Fredric March as the bartender and Jeff Bridges as Ryan’s young friend also give outstanding performances, but the film itself is thrown off-kilter by Ryan’s soaring performance which easily leaves Marvin’s star turn in the dust. For a truer version of the play, see the 1960 TV version directed by Sidney Lumet with Jason Robards in a brilliant star turn in Marvin’s role. For an unforgettable, lived-in performance, however, see this version for Ryan’s towering achievement.
The Oscar that Ryan might have won went to his long-time friend John Houseman, with whom he co-founded the Theatre Group at USC-L.A. in 1959, for his stern professor in The Paper Chase.
ROBERT RYAN AND OSCAR
- Crossfire (1947) – Nominated – Best Supporting Actor