Robert Ryan (1910-1973)

Robert Ryan
Robert Ryan

Robert Ryan was an important figure in the history of Hollywood movie making, particularly in film noir and western productions after WWII.

He was 6'4" tall with a lined face, qualities which meant he was a natural to play villains and tough guys, and he did it very well, with an intensity that was sometimes unsettling to watch.

He received one Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for 'Crossfire' in 1947 and he built a reputation for acting of the highest quality.


He was born Robert Bushnell Ryan on November 11, 1909, in Chicago, Illinois. His paternal grandparents were Irish immigrants and his father started his own real estate firm. The family were well off and Ryan was educated first at the private Catholic Loyola Academy in Chicago and for four years from 1928 at Dartmouth College. He graduated in 1932 and then worked various jobs including seaman, ranch hand,and photographer's model. He returned home in 1936 after his father died in a road accident, and he made the decision to settle down and become an actor.

Early Acting Career 1937

His acting career began in 1937 in a small theater group in Chicago and he began stage training the following year in the Max Reinhardt Workshop in Hollywood. Also in 1938 he did a screen test for Paramount Studios. It was unsuccessful but led in late 1939 to a standard six month contract with the studio. He was now a movie actor.


During the early 1940s Ryan appeared in several minor films such as 'Golden Gloves' and 'The Ghost Breakers' in 1940 and 'Texas Rangers Ride Again' the following year. After Paramount failed to extend his contract he also had several parts in stock play productions such as 'A Kiss for Cinderella', 'The Barker' and 'Petticoat Fever' in 1941.

One of his co-stars in 'A Kiss for Cinderella' was Luise Rainer and he was seen by her ex-husband, playwright Clifford Odets. It was the lucky break he needed. Odets offered him a featured part in his Broadway play 'Clash by Night' opposite Tallulah Bankhead and Lee J. Cobb. Although the play ran for only 49 performances, it was high profile and Ryan was mixing with top stars. It got the tall, good-looking actor noticed and he was very soon offered a long term contract with RKO

RKO 1942

Ryan began his RKO career appearing in supporting roles in several popular 1943 films including 'Bombardier', 'The Sky's the Limit', playing a friend of Fred Astaire, 'The Iron Major' and 'Gangway for Tomorrow'

He was becoming well known and received star billing in the hit 'Tender Comrade' with Ginger Rogers in 1943 and 'Marine Raiders' the following year.


In January 1944, Ryan joined the United States Marine Corps, serving as a drill instructor at Camp Pendleton, in San Diego, California.. On discharge in 1947 he returned to RKO and movie making.

Postwar Career 1947

He appeared in a string of movies over the next two decades, becoming something of a specialist in "B" Westerns, War films and Films Noir. He began in the Western 'Trail Street', supporting Randolph Scott and continued in the Noir 'The Woman on the Beach' with Joan Bennett.
Also in 1947 Ryan appeared in the hugely successful 'Crossfire' a Noir which received five Oscar nominations, including Ryan for Best Supporting Actor and Gloria Grahame for Best Supporting Actress. It was the first B movie to receive a best picture nomination..

For the next five years Ryan continued to build a reputation for high quality acting in average films such as 'Berlin Express' and 'Return of the Bad Men' in 1948, 'The Set-Up' and ' The Woman on Pier 13' in 1949 and ' Flying Leathernecks' in 1951 with John Wayne.

He continued to be an extremely busy actor during the 1950s in films such as 'The Racket' in 1951, 'On Dangerous Ground' the same year and the movie adaptation of 'Clash by Night' in1952 with Barbara Stanwyck and Marilyn Monroe. Before he left RKO he made 'Beware My Lovely' with Ida Lupino and then began to make movies for a number of different studios.

Hollywood Star

Ryan's status as a consummate professional and a first class actor was becoming internationally known. In 1953 he made 'The Naked Spur' for MGM, After 'City Beneath the Sea' in 1953 for Universal, he made 'Alaska Seas' the following year at Paramount. One of Ryan's best known performances was as the evil rancher opposing Spencer Tracy in the hugely successful 'Bad Day at Black Rock' for MGM in 1955.

For the remainder of his career Ryan played excellent roles in a mixture of high caliber productions. He co-starred with Harry Belafonte in the gangster film 'Odds Against Tomorrow' in 1959, and gave one of his best performances in 1962 as the ruthless Claggart in 'Billy Budd'. He continued to display high quality acting skills as US generals firstly in 'The Longest Day' in 1962 and again in 'Battle of the Bulge' in 1965.

He again played a tough guy in 'The Professionals' in 1966, then an army major coming up against Lee Marvin in 'The Dirty Dozen' the following year. He played a bounty hunter in the classic Sam Peckinpah western 'The Wild Bunch' in 1969 and his swansong movie was 'The Iceman Cometh' in 1973./p>

Stage and Television

Ryan made several appearances on the Broadway stage.including 'Clash by Night', and in 1969, 'The Front Page', a comedy about journalism.

. He appeared in many television series as a guest star, including the role of Franklin Hoppy-Hopp in the 1964 episode "Who Chopped Down the Cherry Tree?" on the NBC medical drama about psychiatry, The Eleventh Hour. Similarly, he guest starred as Lloyd Osment in the 1964 episode "Better Than a Dead Lion" in the ABC psychiatric series, Breaking Point. In 1964, Ryan appeared with Warren Oates in the episode "No Comment" of CBS's short-lived drama about newspapers, The Reporter, starring Harry Guardino in the title role of journalist Danny Taylor. Ryan appeared five times (1956–1959) on CBS's Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater and twice (1959 and 1961) on the Zane Grey spin-off Frontier Justice. He appeared three times (1962–1964) on the western Wagon Train.


Ryan was married once, to Jessica Cadwalader, whom he met when both were studying at the Max Reinhardt workshop in the late 1930s. The couple had two sons and a daughter and Jessica went on to become a children's book writer. The marriage ended with her death in 1972.

. Despite his on screen persona as a sadistic tough guy, Ryan off screen was a pacifist who campaigned actively for civil rights and who was a vocal opponent of McCarthyism. He was a co-founder of SANE, the anti-nuclear action group.

. In 1959 he joined John Houseman and Sidney Harmon to co-found the Theatre Group at the University of California at Los Angeles. Similarly, in 1968 he co-founded the Plumstead Playhouse Repertory Company, alongside Henry Fonda and Martha Scott.

He was a founder of SANE (an anti-nuclear action group) and a vocal supporter of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten during the 1950s.

Robert Ryan was a heavy smoker for many years and died on July 11th, 1973 from lung cancer.

Robert Ryan Academy Awards

No Wins:
One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Supporting Actor ... Crossfire (1947)

Robert Ryan Filmography

The Ghost Breakers (uncredited)
Queen of the Mob
Golden Gloves
Northwest Mounted Police
Texas Rangers Ride Again
The Sky's the Limit
Behind the Rising Sun
The Iron Major
Gangway for Tomorrow
Tender Comrade
Marine Raiders
Trail Street
The Woman on the Beach
Berlin Express
Return of the Bad Men
The Boy with Green Hair
Act of Violence
The Set-Up
I Married a Communist
The Secret Fury
Born to Be Bad
Best of the Badmen
Flying Leathernecks
The Racket
On Dangerous Ground
Clash by Night
Beware, My Lovely
Horizons West
The Naked Spur
City Beneath the Sea
Alaska Seas
About Mrs Leslie
Her Twelve Men