The Set-Up (1949)
The Set-Up (1949)

A Book Review by Irv Slifkin.

In The Lives of Robert Ryan (Wesleyen University Press, 2015), Chicago film critic J.R. Jones points out the many contradictions in the actors’ career and life as reflected in the title of the book.

The actor did, in fact, lead many lives.

Ryan was a tough Irishman with an Ivy League degree (Dartmouth, ’32, where he was a boxing champion) and service in the Marines under his belt. He started in the acting game at a relatively late age of 28 after studying under Max Reinhardt, the legendary theater director.

He became known as one of Hollywood’s favorite thugs playing memorable villains in some key classic RKO film noirs such as Crossfire (1947), The Racket (1951) and Act of Violence (1949). Even when he was a good guy, as in the boxing classic, The Set-Up (also 1949), he was haunted, troubled. And when not tackling similar roles he was typically crusty in supporting parts in such manly action films as The Wild Bunch (1969), The Battle of the Bulge (1965), and The Dirty Dozen (1967).

Jones comps.inddIn real life, however, Ryan was a lifelong liberal whose father ran a highly profitable construction company and was well-connected to the Windy City’s Democratic machine. Ryan was an ardent supporter of liberal causes and backed such candidates as JFK and George McGovern. He was a vocal opponent of HUAC in a time when it was not fashionable, which drew the ire of blacklist supporter and former co-star John Wayne.

And he was heavily involved with his writer wife Jessica, a liberal Quaker, in creating the progressive Oakwood School, which they helped finance and actually built in their backyard and remains in operation today. His acting inspirations? Frederic March and Spencer Tracy, both of whom he had a chance to work with. However, as Jones points out, the strapping six-foot four-inch performer had some serious issues, including heavy drinking and stints of severe depression.

While he partook in protests against Vietnam and marched for Civil Rights – he was a close friend of Harry Belafonte – he felt guilty about the luxuries afforded to him by being an in-demand actor. What many also may not realize was Ryan’s impressive theater credits, and how frequently he performed on-stage, tackling Shakespeare’s Coriolanus off-Broadway (1954), opposite Katherine Hepburn Anthony and Cleopatra (1960; McCarter Theater in Princeton. New Jersey), and in plays written by Eugene O’Neill several times. He even started the Plumstead Playhouse, a Long Island theater, with Henry Fonda and Martha Scott.

The Lives of Robert Ryan is an engrossing book, an entertaining read and a solid piece of scholarship that shows that actors out of the spotlight often lead lives more interesting than those in it. Expertly chronicled are Ryan’s collaborations with a host of top directors such as Fred Zinneman (Act of Violence), Robert Wise (The Set-Up, Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959), Nicholas Ray (Born to be Bad, 1950; Flying Leathernecks, 1951; On Dangerous Ground, 1951), Anthony Mann (The Naked Spur, 1953, Men in War, 1957), Bud Boetticher (City Beneath the Sea, 1953), Sam Fuller (House of Bamboo, 1955), Richard Brooks (The Professionals, 1966), and more.

Ryan 02Especially interesting about the book are the back stories about Ryan’s key credits. For example, during the filming of John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Ryan’s opportunity to work with his idol Tracy was marred somewhat with their political divisions – Tracy was a conservative and was wary of his co-star – although Ryan considered it a blessing having the opportunity to act opposite Tracy and took in as much as he could from the master thespian during the shoot.

Meanwhile, during production of The Wild Bunch, Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated which impacted the shooting, adding more tension to an already tense set. Stars William Holden and Ernest Borgnine have run-ins with hot-headed helmer Sam Peckinpah, as does Ryan. After asking for ten days off to campaign for George McGovern and turned down, Ryan dresses and is put makeup but not called on to act. Finally, the frustrated Ryan grabs the director by the shirt front and growls, “I’ll do anything you ask me to do in front of the camera because I’m a professional. But open your mouth to me off the set, and I’ll knock your teeth in.”

Incidents reported like this make you appreciate Robert Ryan, as well as J.R. Jones’ fine and colorful book.

Irv Slifkin teaches film and communications at Temple University in Philadelphia and Rowan University in New Jersey, USA. A co-director of the Reel East Film Festival, he is currently producing a documentary on cult films.

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