Robert Ryan

Robert Bushnell Ryan (November 11, 1909  July 11, 1973) was an American actor who most often portrayed hardened cops and ruthless villains.

Robert Ryan
Robert Ryan in Marine Raiders (1944)
Robert Bushnell Ryan

November 11, 1909
Chicago, Illinois, United States
DiedJuly 11, 1973(1973-07-11) (aged 63)
New York City, United States
Years active194073
Jessica Cadwalader
(m. 1939; died 1972)
Military career
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Marine Corps
Years of service1944-1945
Rank Corporal[1]
UnitCamp Pendleton
Battles/warsWorld War II
AwardsDrill Instructor

Early life

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.[2]:p.4 He was of Irish (his paternal grandparents were from Thurles) and English descent. Ryan was raised Catholic[3] and educated at Loyola Academy.[4] He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1932, having held the school's heavyweight boxing title for all four years of his attendance. 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.[5] He returned home in 1936 when his father died, and decided to become an actor.[6][7]


Early appearances

In 1937 Ryan joined a little theater group in Chicago. The following year he enrolled in the Max Reinhardt Workshop in Hollywood.[8]


In November 1939 Paramount signed Ryan to a long-term contract. They announced he would play the lead in Golden Gloves, citing his boxing experience at Dartmouth.[9]

In 1940, he had his first credited role in Golden Gloves (1940), directed by Edward Dmytryk. They would go on to make several films together. The same year, Ryan had small parts in The Ghost Breakers (1940) and Queen of the Mob (1940).

Ryan had small roles in North West Mounted Police (1941) and Texas Rangers Ride Again (1941). Then Paramount dropped him.[8]

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 only had a run of 49 performances, but was high-profile and led to him being signed to a long-term contract by RKO.[10]


Ryan appeared in Bombardier (1943), starring Pat O'Brien, and was fourth-billed in the Fred Astaire musical The Sky's the Limit (1943), playing a friend of Astaire. Both films were popular.[11]

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).[12]

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.

World War Two

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.[8]

Return to acting

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, The Woman on the Beach (1947) with Joan Bennett and directed by Jean Renoir, lost money.[12][13]

Ryan's breakthrough film role was as an anti-Semitic killer in Crossfire (1947), a film noir based on Brooks's 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.[14]

Ryan co-starred with Merle Oberon in Berlin Express (1948) for director Jacques Tourneur, 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.[15]

MGM borrowed him to make Act of Violence (1948) for Fred Zinnemann. He stayed at that studio to make Caught (1949) for Max Ophuls with James Mason.

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. 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.[16] In 1950 the studio bought The Miami Story as a vehicle for him.[17]

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.[18]

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."[19]

His last film at RKO for a number of years was Beware, My Lovely (1952) with Lupino, made for Lupino's company.


Ryan went over to MGM where he played a villain in Anthony Mann's western The Naked Spur (1953), starring James Stewart. It was very popular.

He appeared in City Beneath the Sea (1953) for Budd Boetticher at Universal, Inferno (1953) at MGM, and Alaska Seas (1954) at Paramount.

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 Ryan's old RKO chief, Dore Schary. Schary cast Ryan as the head villain in Bad Day at Black Rock (1954).

He appeared in an off-Broadway production of Coriolanus (1954) directed by John Houseman.

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 reportedly $150,000 a film.[20]

He starred in The Proud Ones (1956) at Fox, Back from Eternity (1956) at RKO, directed by John Farrow.[21] He appeared in Men in War (1957) for Anthony Mann, made at Mann's company Security Pictures.


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.[22]

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.


In the summer of 1960 Ryan starred opposite Katharine Hepburn at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, playing Antony to Hepburn's Cleopatra.

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).[23]

He also appeared in the all-star war film The Longest Day (1962), playing James M. Gavin.

Ryan returned to Broadway in the musical Mr. President (1962–63) by Lindsay and Crouse with music by Irving Berlin and directed by Joshua Logan; it ran for 263 performances.[24]

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.

Although Ryan never appeared in any production of Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, he was originally considered for the role of Commodore Matt Decker in the 1967 episode "The Doomsday Machine". Episode author Norman Spinrad had reportedly written the script with Ryan in mind to play Commodore Decker, but Ryan was unavailable, owing to prior commitments. That role subsequently went to William Windom.


Ryan could be seen in The Crooked Road (1965) and The Secret Agents (1965), then the all-star Battle of the Bulge (1965) for Phil Yordan and The Professionals (1966) for Brooks.

Ryan supported Sid Caesar in The Busy Body (1967) and had a key support part in The Dirty Dozen (1967) for Robert Aldrich and Hour of the Gun (1967), playing Ike Clanton for John Sturges.

Ryan played Othello (1967, in Nottingham, England).[25]

Ryan went to Europe for Un minuto per pregare, un istante per morire (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;[26] the following winter, a film of the production (produced jointly by MPC and Plumstead) would be broadcast nationally over the upstart Hughes TV Network.[27][28][6]

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." [29]

Final films

Ryan supported Burt Lancaster in Lawman (1971) and Jon Phillip Law in The Love Machine (1971). He appeared in And Hope to Die (1971) with Jean-Louis Trintignant for René Clément.

In April 1971 Ryan returned to the stage to play James Tyrone in Arvin Brown's critically acclaimed Off-Broadway production of Long Day's Journey Into Night.[30]

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.[29][8] "Something very big is missing and I don't know what to put in its place," he said.[29]

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,[31] the National Board of Review Award for Best Actor (in a tie with Al Pacino, for Serpico),[32] and a special award from the National Society of Film Critics.[33] The Iceman Cometh and Executive Action both were released in November 1973, after Ryan's death.

Ryan had signed to appear in a stage musical version of Shenandoah when he died.[8]


Despite his military service, he came to share the pacifist views of his wife Jessica, who was a Quaker.

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.[34]

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.[2]:p.132

Ryan's film work, playing cynical, prejudiced, violent characters, often ran counter to the political 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. Ryan was often vocal about this dichotomy. 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."[35]

Personal life

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).[36][37][38] 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.[37]

In the fall of 1951, a progressive school by the name of Oakwood was opened in Jessica and Robert Ryan's backyard, founded by a small group of parents who decided to create a school based on their views of education and child-rearing. Three years later, those parents, including the Ryans, Sidney Harmon and 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.

Robert and Jessica remained married until her death from cancer in 1972. He died from lung cancer in New York City the following year at age 63.

"I've been lucky as hell with my career and my family," he said shortly before he died.[29]


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.[39]


See also


  2. Jarlett, Franklin (1997). Robert Ryan: A Biography and Critical Filmography. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Classics.
  3. Jones, J. R. "The Actor's Letter". Chicago Reader.
  4. Jones, J.R. The Lives of Robert Ryan Wesleyan University Press, 11 May 2015
  5. Jarlett, Franklin (1997). Robert Ryan: A Biography and Critical Filmography. McFarland & Company. p. 7. Retrieved 10 December 2018.
  6. Robert Ryan, In Search of Action: Ryan, In Search of Action By PATRICIA BOSWORTH. New York Times 1 June 1969: D1
  7. From Chicago Sandhog to Hollywood Star: Robert Ryan: Acting Career Has Beginning in Night School Zylstra, Freida. Chicago Daily Tribune 19 July 1950: a1.
  8. Robert Ryan Dies of Cancer at 63: Played in More Than 80 Films in 30-Year Career ROBERT RYAN Meagher, Ed. Los Angeles Times 12 July 1973: 3a.
  9. SCREEN NEWS HERE AND IN HOLLYWOOD: Paramount Signs Robert Ryan, Former Dartmouth Boxer, for 'Golden Gloves' RKO PLANS 'LITTLE ORVIE' Seeks John Barrymore 2d for Title Role--Mary Boland Gets Part in 'New Moon' RKO Signs Edmund O'Brien By DOUGLAS W. CHURCHILL Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES 4 Nov 1939: 11.
  10. The Life Story of ROBERT RYAN Picture Show; London Vol. 56, Iss. 1454, (Feb 10, 1951): 10.
  11. ""Top Grossers of the Season" Variety (January 1944) p54". Internet Archive. January 1944. Retrieved 10 August 2019.
  12. Richard Jewel, 'RKO Film Grosses: 1931-1951', Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television, Vol 14 No 1, 1994 p41
  13. ROBERT RYAN GETS ROLE IN RKO FILM: Out of Marines, He Will CoStar With Joan Bennett for Studio in 'Desirable Woman' Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES 4 Jan 1946: 28.
  14. Robert Ryan, 'Crossfire' Hit, Gets Stardom in Boxing Film By Hedda Hopper. The Washington Post 1 July 1947: 17.
  15. RANDOM NOTES ABOUT PICTURES AND PEOPLE: Robert Ryan on 'Berlin Express' -- New Novel Acquired and Other Items By A.H. WEILER. New York Times 20 July 1947: X3.
  16. ROBERT RYAN GETS LEAD IN RKO FILM: To Play Opposite Joan Fontaine in 'Bed of Roses' at Studio -- Work Starts This Month By THOMAS F. BRADYS New York Times 1 June 1949: 43.
  17. DRATTLER DRAMA IS BOUGHT BY RKO: Studio Acquires 'Miami Story' as Vehicle for Robert Ryan --Author Named Producer Of Local Origin By THOMAS F. BRADY Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES 28 Jan 1950: 10.
  18. Drama: Robert Ryan Scripts Avalanche Outline; Gig Young Western Prepared Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times 26 Jan 1951: A9.
  19. Ryan & Shaw Thomson, David. Film Comment; New York Vol. 30, Iss. 1, (Jan 1994): 68.
  20. Ryan Proposes 'Lost Patrol;' Zero Mostel in 'Lunatics and Lovers' Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times 30 July 1955: 15.
  21. Drama: Andes Flies Over Andes; Shannon Upped, to Star; Don McGuire to Produce Scheuer, Philip K. Los Angeles Times 3 Jan 1956: B7.
  22. "Notes From Hollywood". The Ottawa Citizen. December 3, 1955. Retrieved 2013-03-15.
  23. 2 FILM FIRMS WIN CHAPLIN CASE: Roy Export and Lopert Get U. S. Injunction Barring 'Pirated' Showings By RICHARD NASON. New York Times 24 July 1959: 14.
  24. The Lives of Robert Ryan Dick, Bernard F. Film & History; Cleveland, OK Vol. 47, Iss. 1, (Summer 2017): 90-91.
  25. UPI-AP. "Robert Ryan Dead At 59" [sic]. The Montreal Gazette. July 12, 1973. Retrieved 2013-03-16.
  26. "Repertory Formed By Noted Actors". The St. Petersburg Times. August 3, 1968. Retrieved 2013-03-16.
  27. "TV Drama Boasts Top Cast". The Calgary Herald. January 23, 1970. Retrieved 2013-03-16.
  28. Du Brow, Rick. "Xerox Presents 'The Front Page'". The Sarasota Journal. January 12, 1970. Retrieved 2013-03-16.
  29. Robert Ryan---A New Life on Borrowed Time: Robert Ryan---No Complaints Murphy, Mary. Los Angeles Times 5 Sep 1972: d1.
  30. "Off Broadway". The New Yorker. Volume 47, Issue 3. Retrieved 2013-03-15. See also:
  31. KCFCC Award Winners 1970-1979. Kansas City Film Critics Circle. Retrieved 2013-03-15.
  32. Wedman, Les. "And Now... The Oscar for Gore at the Box Office". The Vancouver Sun. January 10, 1974. Retrieved 2013-03-15.
  33. Sarris, Andrew. "Films in Focus: A Tale of Two Circles". The Village Voice. February 14, 1974. Retrieved 2013-03-15.
  34. "Robert Ryan Biography". New York Times. 2010.
  35. Philip K. Scheuer, Los Angeles Times, 1 October 1959, B13.
  36. "Actor's Son Cheyney Ryan Brings Migrant Workers a Theater That Could Save Their Lives".
  37. Jones, J R (2015). The Lives of Robert Ryan. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press. p. 281. ISBN 978-0-8195-7373-5. OCLC 907774763.
  38. Jones, J. R. "The Actor's Letter". Chicago Reader. Retrieved 2 September 2019.
  39. Robert Ryan's Quiet Furies: [Arts and Leisure Desk] Manohla Dargis. New York Times 7 Aug 2011: AR.10.

Further reading

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