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  • The Lives of Robert Ryan by J.R. Jones
  • Bernard F. Dick
The Lives of Robert Ryan. J.R. Jones. Middletown, CT.: Wesleyan University Press. 2015. 376 pages. ISBN 978–0-8195–7372-8

The title is not a misprint. Robert Ryan was a stage, screen, and television actor; a political activist and a lifelong Democrat, who stumped for Helen Gahagan Douglass in 1950 when she ran for the Senate. Douglass was pitted against Richard Nixon, who vilified her as a Communist sympathizer and won 59 percent of the popular vote. In 1952, Ryan campaigned—again unsuccessfully—for Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate, who was roundly defeated by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ryan saw greatness in losers, whether in politics or in film. He identified with the washed up boxer in Robert Wise's The Set-Up (1949), who is suckered into a fixed fight and pays the price for playing by the rules. He understood Deke Thornton in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch,(1969), a bounty hunter, who knows that the Old West has receded into myth but chooses to keep the myth alive elsewhere, realizing that stasis is just another form of death. Ryan himself was a survivor. Although he spent a decade (1942–52) at RKO, he sensed in the early 1950s that the future lay in multi-picture deals or freelancing; Ryan did both. He was, to use the cliché, a working actor, and found time to return periodically to the theatre, where he began his career. His first love was Shakespeare. As a teenager, he memorized Hamlet, although he never played the melancholy Dane. He did, however, play Coriolanus off Broadway in 1954 and costarred with Katharine Hepburn in Antony and Cleopatra at the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut in 1960. Other classic roles followed: Hector in Jean Giraudoux' Tiger at the Gates (1957), Thomas à Becket in T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral (1960), and James Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, with Geraldine Fitzgerald as the [End Page 90] morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone in 1971. For a nonsinger, he did reasonably well in Irving Berlin's last musical, Mr. President (1962), returning to Broadway twenty years after he made his New York debut in a minor role in Clifford Odets's Clash By Night (1941), little knowing that a decade later he would be playing opposite Barbara Stanwyck in the movie version. Mr. President was the only time I ever saw Ryan on the stage. He seemed to be having a good time, even though he had never appeared in a musical before. Berlin gave him the climactic number, in which Ryan extolled the greatness of America in lyrics that one would expect from the composer of "God Bless America." When Ryan got to the last verse—"If this is flag waving, flag waving/Can you think of a better flag to wave?"—he was so convincing that you had to fight against being manipulated by such jingoism. I regret having missed the 1969 Broadway revival of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's The Front Page in which Ryan's character, Walter Burns, delivers the famous curtain line, "The son of a bitch stole my watch."

Jones offers a highly readable and impeccably researched biography of his elusive subject, who, like humankind in general, is a "mingled yarn," to quote Ryan's favorite playwright in All's Well That Ends Well. From his rugged looks, one could easily see how he became a star boxer and football player at Dartmouth. But modeling underwear as well? That too, plus working as a sandhog and shipping out to South Africa as a sailor. Finally, Ryan knew what he wanted to do and enrolled at the Max Reinhardt School of the Theater in Los Angeles where he met his future wife, Jessica. Although he was not a pacifist like his wife, he grew to hate war while he was a drill instructor in the Marines during World War II after it dawned on him that some of the men he was training to kill would themselves be killed. Ryan was a family man but...


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