Nationality: American. Born: Robert Bushnell Ryan in Chicago, Illinois, 11 November 1909. Education: Attended Loyola Academy, Chicago; Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire (boxing champion), B.A. in literature 1931. Military Service: U.S. Marine Corps, 1944–45: drill instructor, Camp Pendleton barracks, San Diego. Family: Married Jessica Cadwalader, 1939 (died 1972), sons: Timothy, Cheyney, daughter: Lisa. Career: 1936—member of Edward Boyle's stock company, Chicago; 1939—studied at Max Reinhardt's Actors' Workshop in Los Angeles; professional stage debut in Too Many Husbands in Los Angeles; 1940—contract with Paramount; first significant film role in Golden Gloves ; 1941—on Broadway in Clash by Night ; then contract with RKO; 1943—first big break with
The College Widow (Mayo) (as extra)
Strong Boy (Ford) (bit role as baggage man)
Golden Gloves (Dmytryk) (as Pete Wells); Queen of the Mob (Hogan) (as Jim); The Ghost Breakers (George Marshall) (as intern); Northwest Mounted Police (Cecil B. DeMille) (as Constable Dumont)
Texas Rangers Ride Again (Hogan) (as Eddie)
Bombardier (Wallace) (as Joe Connors); The Sky's the Limit (Edward H. Griffith) (as Reg Fenton); Behind the Rising Sun (Dmytryk) (as Lefty); Gangway for Tomorrow (Auer) (as Joe Dunham); The Iron Major (Enright) (as Father Tim Donovan); Tender Comrade (Dmytryk) (as Chris)
Marine Raiders (Schuster) (as Capt. Dan Craig)
Trail Street (Enright) (as Allen Harper); The Woman on the Beach (Renoir) (as Scott); Crossfire (Dmytryk) (as Monty Montgomery)
Berlin Express (Tourneur) (as Robert Lindley); Return of the Badmen (Enright) (as Sundance Kid); Act of Violence (Zinnemann) (as Joe Parkson); The Boy with Green Hair (Losey) (as Dr. Evans)
Caught (Max Ophüls) (as Smith Ohlrig); The Set-Up (Wise) (as Stoker Thompson); The Woman on Pier 13 ( I Married a Communist ) (Stevenson) (as Brad Collins)
The Secret Fury (Ferrer) (as David); Born to Be Bad (Nicholas Ray) (as Nick Bradley)
Best of the Badmen (William D. Russell) (as Jeff Clanton); Flying Leathernecks (Nicholas Ray) (as Griff); The Racket (Cromwell) (as Nick Scanlon); On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray) (as Jim Wilson)
Clash by Night (Fritz Lang) (as Earl Pfeiffer); Beware My Lovely (Horner) (as Howard Wilton); Horizons West (Boetticher) (as Dan Hammond)
City beneath the Sea (Boetticher) (as Brad Carlton); The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann) (as Ben Vandergroat); Inferno (Roy Baker) (as David Carson)
Alaska Seas (Jerry Hopper) (as Matt Kelly); About Mrs. Leslie (Daniel Mann) (as George Leslie); Her Twelve Men (Leonard) (as Joe Hargrave); Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges) (as Reno Smith)
Escape to Burma (Dwan) (as Jim Brecan); House of Bamboo (Fuller) (as Sandy Dawson); The Tall Men (Walsh) (as Nathan Stark)
The Proud Ones (Webb) (as Marshal Cass Silver); Back from Eternity (Farrow) (as Bill Larnigan)
Men in War (Anthony Mann) (as Lt. Benson)
God's Little Acre (Anthony Mann) (as Ty Ty Walden); Lonelyhearts ( Miss Lonelyhearts ) (Donehue) (as William Shrike)
Day of the Outlaw (De Toth) (as Blaise Starrett); Odds against Tomorrow (Wise) (as Earle Slater)
Ice Palace (Sherman) (as Thor Storm)
The Canadians (Kennedy) (as Inspector William Gannon); King of Kings (Nicholas Ray) (as John the Baptist)
The Longest Day (Annakin, Marton, Wicki, and Oswald) (as Brig. Gen. James M. Gavin); Billy Budd (Ustinov) (as Master-at-Arms John Claggart)
The Inheritance (Mayer—doc) (as narrator)
Battle of the Bulge (Annakin) (as Gen. Grey); The Crooked Road (Chaffey) (as Richard Ashley)
La Guerre secrète ( La guerra segreta ; Spione untersich ; The Dirty Game ; The Dirty Agents ) (Terence Young, Christian-Jaque, and Lizzani) (as Gen. Bruce); The Professionals (Richard Brooks) (as Hans Ehrengard)
The Busy Body (Castle) (as Charley Barker); The Dirty Dozen (Aldrich) (as Col. Everett Dasher-Breed); Hour of the Gun ( The Law and Tombstone ) (John Sturges) (as Ike Clanton)
Custer of the West ( Good Day for Fighting ) (Siodmak) (as Sgt. Mulligan); Escondido ( Un Minuto per Pregare un Instante per Morire ; A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die ; Dead or Alive ) (Giraldi) (as Governor Lem Carter); Lo Sbarco di Anzio ( Anzio ; The Battle for Anzio ) (Dmytryk) (as Gen. Carson)
The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah) (as Deke Thornton)
Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (James Hill) (title role)
Lawman (Winner) (as Marshal Cotton Ryan); The Love Machine (Haley Jr.) (as Gregory Austin)
Le Course, du lièvre a travers les champs ( . . . And Hope to Die ) (Clément) (as Charley)
The Lolly-Madonna War ( Lolly-Madonna XXX ) (Sarafian) (as Pap Gutshall); Executive Action (David Miller) (as Foster); The Outfit ( The Good Guys Always Win ) (Flynn) (as Mailer); The Iceman Cometh (Frankenheimer) (as Larry Slade); The Man without a Country (Delbert Mann—for TV) (as Vaughan)
Parish, James, The Tough Guys , New Rochelle, New York, 1976.
Jarlett, Franklin, Robert Ryan: A Biography and Critical Filmography , Jefferson, North Carolina, 1990, 1997.
Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1955.
Current Biography 1963 , New York, 1963.
Stein, J., "Robert Ryan," in Films in Review (New York), January 1968.
Obituary in New York Times , 12 July 1973.
Ecran (Paris), November 1979.
Génin, T., "Robert Ryan: un héros américain," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 1 March 1980.
Thomson, David, "Ryan and Shaw," in Film Comment (New York), January/February 1994.
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Robert Ryan was unique among Hollywood stars for having been both an Ivy League graduate (Dartmouth, class of 1931) and an undefeated intercollegiate boxing champion, heavyweight class. Thus he brought to his acting career the unusual combination of a fine education and an authentic tough-guy reputation. In his early years out of college, he found work in a depression environment wherever he could, first spending two hot and dirty years as engine room janitor on a freighter that steamed from New York to East Africa around the Cape and back, then touring the country in one odd job after another—gold prospecting and cowpunching in northern Montana, department store modeling and working a desk job with the board of education in Chicago.
When he ended up in California in 1939, he enrolled at the Max Reinhardt Actors' Workshop, which led to his stage debut in Too Many Husbands at Belasco Theatre in Los Angeles. A Paramount Pictures talent scout was impressed enough by Ryan's opening night performance to offer him a $75 a week contract, which he accepted on the spot. With Paramount, he then made his feature film debut, appropriately cast as a boxer in a B movie entitled Golden Gloves . He found steady work in small parts, with his first big break coming in 1943 as co-star to Ginger Rogers in Tender Comrade . This film was later cited—ludicrously so—as an example of how communists had infiltrated the film industry. Both its director, Edward Dmytryk, and its screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, were among the original blacklisted Hollywood ten. Ryan, however, was helped by his appearance in Tender Comrade , although his enlistment in the Marines in 1944 temporarily halted his promising career.
It was after the war that Ryan found real success as a movie star by being featured in a colorful dramatic role as a bigoted villain in Crossfire . His chilling performance not only earned him an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor, it also tended to type him for the majority of the screen roles to follow. His film persona relied on that of the smooth surface which covers a twisted interior. Ryan was a big man, 6' 3" tall, with dark hair and good looks. He might have become a traditional "handsome hero" leading man, but instead he began playing articulate villains, the kind who could talk their way out of places and build alibis for themselves in any kind of situation. In addition to the obvious acting skill such roles require, Ryan had the sort of Irishness viewers often associate with blarney. He added to it a suspicious smile and overly confident manner which seemed to suggest hidden strength and possible danger, an undercurrent of violence and cruelty. With these characteristics, he created a gallery of some of the most interesting villains ever seen on film, and built a career out of crime films, films noir, melodramas, and Westerns.
For the majority of the moviegoing public, he is most associated with the last genre. (Ryan himself referred to his "long, seamy face" as being perfect for Westerns.) His filmography reads as a chronology of the development of the genre in the postwar period, from such classics as Anthony Mann's The Naked Spur and John Sturges's Bad Day at Black Rock through Raoul Walsh's The Tall Men , Budd Boetticher's Horizons West , and Andre De Toth's Day of the Outlaw to the iconoclastic film by Sam Peckinpah, The Wild Bunch . Recently, much critical attention has been given to Ryan's seminal contributions to film noir, especially given his appearance in films by many of that genre's most important directors, notably Jean Renoir ( The Woman on the Beach ), Max Ophüls ( Caught ), Robert Wise ( The Set-Up ), Nicholas Ray ( On Dangerous Ground ), and Fritz Lang ( Clash by Night ).
Always an actor to seek challenge and a change, Ryan returned to the New York stage in 1954, starring in Coriolanus . From that time on, he moved back and forth from his film career to his stage career, creating successes in theater both in Los Angeles and New York, and particularly finding praise for his outstanding performance in an excellent revival of The Front Page shortly before his death. Unfortunately, over the last eight years of his life Ryan was largely relegated to cameos in big pictures, such as The Dirty Dozen , Custer of the West , and Anzio (although he made more money in this period than in the first 25 years of his film career combined).
Ryan guided his entire career with intelligence and seriousness of purpose. Since his desire was to be more than a movie star, he willingly accepted roles that did not create a lovable persona. Because of this, he did not attract as large a following as some other stars. Nevertheless, he always maintained a reputation for quality and reliability. Seen in retrospect, this quality places him at the center of film history, as he appeared in many films which, although not Oscar winners of their day, are now considered classics worthy of serious attention and study. In this way, history and time are making Robert Ryan into one of the most interesting stars of Hollywood films.
—Jeanine Basinger, updated by David E. Salamie