Friday, March 2, 2018

Robert Ryan: His Early Life and Career

When the name Robert Ryan is mentioned, the first image that comes to mind is a man with a hard glint in his eye and a menacing tone in his voice. But the man behind the oftentimes villainous character was a kind and quiet man at heart, content spending time with his wife and children and avoiding the Hollywood party scene.

My re-introduction to Robert Ryan was as a teacher at an all boys school in Her Twelve Men (the first film I saw with him in it was Flying Leathernecks but all I remembered about that movie is that his character and John Wayne's character did not get along. My second was Men in War which I watched for Aldo Ray...). I thought to myself, "Oh look, he plays a good guy in this movie." Even though I had hardly seen any of his films, I knew he was usually a bad guy.

I followed this film some months later with Tender Comrade (1943) in which he is the romantic lead in Ginger Roger's flashbacks. I fell in love with his character. And then Ryan. And then I started watching any film of his that showed up on TCM. And then I had to read his biography.

I was happy to learn that Ryan's personal life was quiet and scandal-free. Born Robert Bushnell Ryan on Nov. 11, 1909, Bob lived a happy childhood in Uptown, Illinois until the death of his younger brother at the age of six of lobar pneumonia. His life was lonely after that and he spent much of his time reading. His father signed him up for boxing lessons to help draw him out, which Bob loved. "Athletic prowess did a lot for my ego and my acceptance in school. The ability to defend yourself lessens the chance you'll ever have to use it."

Bob Ryan as a child

Bob also spent a lot of time at the movies - he never missed a Douglas Fairbanks picture. Aside from his fascination with how movies were made, it was also a way to get away from the smothering affections of his parents. "You cannot know the difficulties that attend an only child. Two big grown-ups are beaming in on him all the time - even when he isn't there. It is a feeling of being watched that lingers throughout life."

Bob as a football player for Loyola Academy

An Irish-Catholic, Bob attended Loyola Academy, during which time played football, becoming an All-City tackle his senior year. He also joined the literary society and wrote for the school's magazine The Prep.
Truly, I may say that a man's best friends are his books. Your companions may desert you, but your books will remain with you always and will never cease to be that source of enjoyment that they were when you first received them.
Bob's favorite book was Hamlet, which he memorized and which made him consider becoming a playwright instead of joining the family construction business.

After graduation, Bob spent the summer working on a dude ranch in Montana before heading to New Hampshire for his first year at Dartmouth. While there he won the school their first heavyweight title in boxing. During the first semester of his second year he suffered a football injury which caused his already average grades to drop. He left at the end of the semester and headed back home where he held odd jobs before returning to Dartmouth the following autumn. He defended the heavyweight title for two years, retiring from boxing in his senior year to focus more on literature

"Rum, Rebellion, and Ryan."
That was Bob's slogan when he ran for class marshal during Prohibition.

The stock market crash and some scandals with his families business made Bob even more determined not to join after graduation. He lived with a friend and tried out playwriting, did a little modeling to make extra cash, and worked a s a sandhog on the Hudson River. He even went in with friends on a gold mine, but pulled out when he realized it wasn't going anywhere.

In 1936 his father died and Bob returned home to take care of his mother. He tried to work at the family business but became frustrated with the way his life was going. It wasn't until a friend persuaded him to try acting that his life would change.
I never even thought of acting until I was twenty-eight. The first minute I got on the stage, I thought, 'Bing! This is it!'
Bob immediately signed up for acting classes and set his sights on Hollywood. He made the move to Los Angeles in 1938 and joined the Reinhardt School where he met his future wife, Jessica Cadwalader, a Quaker. The head of the school, Max Reinhardt, saw something in Bob and became his personal teacher as well as an important figure in his life, teaching him many things that he would carry with him for the rest of his career.

In 1939, Bob and Jessica wed. At the beginning things were rough, but after being noticed in the play Too Many Husbands, Bob secured a contract with Paramount where he was given several small parts. He was let go after six months, after which the Ryan's packed up and went to New York. The couple played in several theaters before Tallulah Bankhead saw him perform and picked him out to play a small role in Clash By Night with her (he would later play a bigger role in the 1952 film version with Barbara Stanwyck).

At the Robin Hood Theatre in Delaware, 1941.

The play made it's Broadway debut shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, causing the paly to close after forty-nine performances. Bob got good reviews from the critics and soon had a contract with RKO, where he held small roles in Patriotic pictures, most notably as a boxer in Behind the Rising Sun (1943). His break came when he was given a role in Tender Comrade (1943) as Ginger Rogers husband (see the opening scene in the video at the top of this post).

Bob's performance garnered him a spread in the April 1944 Photoplay.
I've never felt so at-home in a role in my life. Y'know, a lot of those scenes are retakes of things that have happened between Jessica and myself.
Ginger Rogers was skeptical when Bob was first suggested for the role, thinking his deeply lined face "too mean looking" as well as the major height difference - he was 6'4" to her 5'4". But after doing some scenes together she slipped a note to producer David Hempstead "I think this is the guy." Bob kept that note the rest of his life.
After completing one more picture, Marine Raiders (1943), Bob himself was finally called into service, with a promise that he would still have a job at RKO after the war. He joined the Marines and escaped the ragging that was typical of movie stars in the armed forces because, as a bunkmate said, "Most of these guys saw you beat that Jap in Behind the Rising Sun."
After completing basic training, Bob was frustrated to learn he would be recreation assistant and later a combat conditioner, teaching boxing, judo, and swimming. Jessica, who had quit acting and was writing for magazines at the time, was relieved. She moved near the San Diego base where Bob was stationed and started work on her first mystery, The Man Who Asked Why. In 1945, shortly before the end of the war, she found out she was pregnant.
Bob was honorably discharged on October 30, 1945 and was immediately put into his next picture, The Woman on the Beach (1947), directed by Jean Renoir. Bob played Scott, a Coast Guard suffering from shell-shock whose job is to patrol the foggy Pacific coast. He meets a woman (Joan Bennett) who is married to a blind artist (Charles Bickford) and they start an affair. Scott becomes convinced that Bickford is just pretending to be blind and takes him for a walk near the cliffs. Bickford falls off the cliff but escapes with only minor injuries. Scott then realizes what he's doing is wrong and breaks things off. In the end, Bennett goes back to her husband. Unfortunately the picture was cut and re-edited and so the final product did not do well at the box-office and it is evident that, while the film starts off strongly, it could have been a masterpiece.
Working with him [Renoir] opened my eyes to aspects of character that were subtler than those I was accustomed to.
On April 13, 1946, Jessica gave birth to Timothy. Bob was in between pictures and spent many happy days with his little son and wife. The couple preferred to stay away from the Hollywood scene and when they did entertain it was family and close friends only.
Bob with his son Timothy. 

While in the Marines, Bob had read a book titled The Brick Foxhole that featured a racist, homophobic character who, as a cop, enjoyed beating up and killing blacks and Jews. As a man who would later fight for equal rights and the end of prejudice, he was interested in the book as a film and met with the author, Richard Brooks, to tell him that if it was ever made into a movie, he wanted to play that character. In 1946, RKO purchased the rights and Bob begged for the part. The film, Crossfire, would also star Robert Young as the policeman investigating the murder of a Jewish man and Robert Mitchum as a fellow soldier who is brought in by the police to help find the murderer.
Mr. Dmytryk has handled most excellently a superlative cast which plays the drama. Robert Ryan is frighteningly real as the hard, sinewy, loud-mouthed, intolerant and vicious murderer (NY Times).
I like how Ryan plays the bad guy yet he's the only one smiling in this cast picture.
Crossfire is a frank spotlight on anti-Semitism. Producer Dore Schary, in association with Adrian Scott, has pulled no punches. There is no skirting such relative fol-de-rol as intermarriage or clubs that exclude Jews. Here is a hard-hitting film whose whodunit aspects are fundamentally incidental to the overall thesis of bigotry and race prejudice (Variety).
The role could have meant the end of Bob's career, yet while he was in Berlin shooting his next picture, Berlin Express (1948) with Merle Oberon, the film had broken box-office records (it beat Gentleman's Agreement, another film that addressed anti-Semitism, to release by a few months). Bob was nominated for an Best Supporting Actor Oscar but lost to Edmund Gwenn for his role as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Despite not winning, the role was just what his career needed.

Bob's next big role, and maybe my favorite film of his, was as an embittered ex-soldier in Act of Violence (1948) co-starring Van Heflin, Janet Leigh, Mary Astor, and Phyllis Thaxter. I watched it twice in the span of a couple of months and it was just as captivating the second time as it was the first. Frank Enley (Heflin) is known as a war hero in his town and to his wife, Edith (Leigh). But he's hiding a dark secret that only Joe Parkson (Ryan) knows: he ratted out his friends while being held prisoners in a Nazi POW camp in exchange for food, leading to the death of all but Joe. Now Joe is out for revenge, following Frank across the country with the plan to kill him. You can read about the making of the film here.

TCM Tribute to Robert Ryan

Well, this post is turning out a lot longer than I anticipated so I am going to divide it into two parts. Look out for the next part in two weeks on the 17th!
Also to look forward to: keep an eye out for my post on On Dangerous Ground for The Good Cop, Bad Cop Blogathon at the end of the month and "The Westerns of Robert Ryan" on April 14 for The Great Western Blogathon (I'm pretty much using any excuse I can to write about Ryan). You can also read my post on Her Twelve Men (1954).

Robert Ryan movies airing on TCM:

March 7 - Return of the Bad Men (1948) & Trail Street (1947)
March 9 - The Dirty Dozen (1967
March 17 - Crossfire (1947)

There are also a handful of his films on YouTube that can be found by searching "Robert Ryan Full Movies."

The Lives of Robert Ryan. Jones, J.R. Wesleyan University Press, Middleton, CT. 2015.

This post is part of the Free for All Blogathon hosted by CineMaven's Essays From the Couch. Be sure to check out what everyone else wrote about for this fun and unique blogathon!

As always, CineMaven made cool personal banners for everyone ♥


  1. Two parts is good. I'd like two parts.

    Ryan is what I call a "legacy actor" as I was introduced to him by my movie buff father the day he made us watch Bad Day at Black Rock. He told us to be particularly aware of Ryan, which surprised me because the movie starred his admitted favourite actor, Spencer Tracy. "This Robert Ryan guy must be something" I thought.

    1. He definitely deserves two parts. I've updated the post saying that part 2 will be posted on the 17th :)

      Bad Day is one I haven't seen yet. I'm planning on getting it through my library soon :)

      Thanks for reading!

  2. I have always enjoyed watching Robert Ryan. I love Act of Violence, and I'm really fond of Ryan in The Professionals. This was great to read, as I did not know much about his life. I'm looking forward to part 2.

    1. I wish I had discovered him sooner. He was star of the month on TCM back in 2016 :( Haven’t seen the Professionals yet. Thanks for reading!

  3. Thanks for your tribute. Love Robert in The Set Up, On Dangerous Ground.

    1. Thanks for reading! I really want to see the Set Up!!

  4. The always enjoy Robert Ryan films but my favorite is Ryan as Nick Scanlon in the "Racket" in which he is in my opinion the toughest gangster in all films.

    1. He was the best part of that movie ❤️ Thanks for reading!

  5. You've given more more reasons to admire Robert Ryan. I knew he lived a quiet life, but I knew nothing about his childhood or early career. Thanks for sharing this research – and I'm glad a part 2 is coming. ;)

    Also, I love that meme you posted about a person learning about an actor then becoming obsessed with him/her. Hilarious!

    1. I was very excited that my library had his biography. It’s a great read! That meme is me on all my movie star obsessions lol. Thanks for reading!

  6. OMG I am starting to adore this man- HELP!!!! I need to see tender comrade now- i already love Ginger so an easy choice! I am also dying to see on Dangerous ground!!! (will be on TCM APril 9 if anyone wants to know- PSA- everyone- PSA!) Thanks for telling me all about another great actor who flew under the radar- those are the best types aren't they!

    1. Yay!! I’ll add that date on my part two post :)

  7. I really enjoyed Robert Ryan’s role in “The Dirty Dozen”. His portrayal of the Colonel was convincing enough. I recently watched this movie on . I thought the production was quite good but one of my friends hated it. She does not usually like war films and I must admit that I pressurised her into seeing it.

  8. A fine article on a great actor and human being. I like the film "The Racket"as Nick Scanlon where Ryan plays one of the toughest gangster in film history and in "On Dangerous Ground" where again he is a tough policeman who after meeting Ida Lupino becomes a gentle, understanding, and falling in love. Another fine role was in the best boxing "The Sellout"A great actor in so many great films.