Robert Ryan: the man who lived against type

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Last year, New York’s wonderful non-profit, three-screen movie theater — Film Forum — held a two-week tribute to Robert Ryan.

Although he never attained the full-fledged stardom of peers such as Burt Lancaster, Ryan worked steadily from the late 1940s up until his death in 1973.

The actor went out on a high, playing the ex-anarchist Larry Slade in John Frankenheimer’s film version of the Eugene O’Neill play “The Iceman Cometh,” a 1973 movie that Ryan didn’t live to see.

Like his co-star in “Iceman,” Fredric March, Ryan was famous for his support of liberal causes throughout his career.

Ironically, the actor was most often cast as virulently hateful villains — in his 1947 breakthrough film, “Crossfire,” he is an anti-Semite who kills a Jewish war hero, and then in the 1955 “Bad Day at Black Rock” he is part of a racist mob that persecutes Japanese-Americans.

Ryan looked at his casting dilemma with a sense of humor, once telling a reporter “In movies, I’ve pretty much played everything I’m dedicated to fighting against.”

Although Ryan managed to break out of his type-casting box many times, there is no denying the fact that he was extraordinary in dark roles.

Film Forum screened the 1962 movie version of the Herman Melville novella “Billy Budd” in which Ryan gives one of his finest performances as Claggart (below) whose repressed desire for a young sailor causes chaos on a Royal Navy ship during the Napoleonic wars.

Critic Pauline Kael said of the performance that Ryan “makes evil comprehensible.”

Last year’s tribute also included the 1969 Sam Peckinpah classic “The Wild Bunch” in which Ryan delivers a commanding performance as a one-time member of the outlaw gang headed by William Holden. The Ryan character breaks away from the bunch and joins up with the lawmen who are determined to track them down.

What probably kept Ryan on even keel with his movie work limitations was the fact that he would take regular breaks to work on stage — in a much wider variety of roles than he played on screen.

Ryan did all sorts of things in the theater, from a highly acclaimed performance as Walter Burns in “The Front Page” to the title role in the 1961 Irving Berlin musical “Mr. President.”

After his first bout with cancer, in the early 1970s, Ryan was so disgusted by his experience working on “The Love Machine” — made doubly distasteful by the fact that he had trouble getting insured for it — that he decided to play James Tyrone in a low-paying off-Broadway production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” The show helped to establish director Arvin Brown’s career just as he was taking over Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven and gave an early boost to James Naughton in the role of the sensitive younger Tyrone son, Edmund.

The strong connection with the work of Eugene O’Neill continued with “The Iceman Cometh” but the cancer returned and Ryan died when he was only 64.

Joe Meyers

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