Robert Ryan

November 11 (1909) is the birthday of Robert Ryan, well-known actor in dramatic, action, military, and Western movies, often playing the villain. He had an imposing physique, a rough visage, a steady eye, and a crisp, authoritative delivery. (Actress Ginger Rogers thought he simply looked mean. And too big.)

He was born in Chicago, IL, enjoyed the comfortable life afforded by a very successful father, and graduated from Dartmouth College in 1932. He was 6’4” and held the college’s heavy-weight boxing title all four years he was there. After graduation he worked as a stoker on a ship, a WPA worker, a salesman, a miner, a subway tunnel builder, a bodyguard, and a Montana ranch hand. These were the years of the Great Depression.

He studied acting in Hollywood and got some small parts in films in the early 1940s. In January 1944 he joined the marines and became a drill sergeant at Camp Pendleton. He served until 1947.

In 1947 Ryan got his big break when he played an anti-Semitic killer in the film noir Crossfire. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for that performance. It was the only Oscar nomination in his career. But his skill in the role meant he often secured roles as the villain, the tough guy, the foil.

Over the years he played in regional theater productions and a few on Broadway. And he appeared on television a number of times, especially in Western series. But he had roles in a huge number of movies.

That included many war movies, like Marine Raiders (1944), Flying Leathernecks (1951), Men in War (1957), The Longest Day (1962), The Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Dirty Dozen (1967), and Anzio (1968).

He was also in dramatic roles in movies like The Set-Up (1949), The Boy with Green Hair (1951), Clash by Night (1952), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), and King of Kings (1961).

He had roles in many Westerns. Some: Return of the Bad Men (1948), Horizons West (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Tall Men (1955), Day of the Outlaw (1959), The Canadians (1961), The Hour of the Gun (1967), Sam Peckinpah’s bloody The Wild Bunch (1969), and Lawman (1971).

But the photo shows him (left, with Lee Marvin) in the role of horse wrangler Hans Ehrengard in the 1966 Western The Professionals. I’ve recommended this film twice before, when I was discussing Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin. It’s one of my favorite Westerns. It won three Oscar nominations and received enthusiastic critical comment. Haven’t seen it yet? Well, do so. You’ll love the plot twist in the middle of the movie.

Ryan was a political liberal and social activist and supported efforts for civil rights and racial equality, and against McCarthyism and nuclear armament. Although he had been a marine, he eventually adopted pacifist attitudes; his wife was a Quaker. Ryan himself commented on the irony in the contrast between his often sadistic, racist, angry, malicious, and violent movie roles and his real-life persona.

The writer of the episode called “The Doomsday Machine” in the original Star Trek series had written the role for Ryan, but Ryan had to bow out. The role instead went to William Windom.

Ryan married only once. In 1939 he married Jessica Cadwalader. They stayed married until her death from cancer in 1972. They had three children.

Ryan died the following year, 1973, also of cancer. He was only 63. He blamed heavy smoking for his early death. (Before he died he moved out of his apartment in New York’s coop The Dakota and leased it to John Lennon and Yoko Ono.)