Here’s another substitute Hollywood star Food You Can Eat. Today’s subject is Robert Ryan.
I saw him recently in an old TV documentary, and had no idea who he was. But when I looked him up, I realized I’d seen him a lot over the years. There was a time when everyone would know him right away.
Ryan was born into wealth in Chicago and went to Dartmouth. He was a serious boxer and football player in college, stood about 6-4, and after graduating he first shoveled coal on a freighter and then he herded horses in Montana, but after a few years he moved to Hollywood where he found steady work in action, outdoor, and war movies.
He’s the dark-haired boxer in this clip, and you cannot help but see why directors wanted him in their action movies. (In case you can’t guess, the music in this video is dubbed in and isn’t the original soundtrack.)
After a stint as a drill sergeant during the Second World War, he returned to Hollywood. In the 1940s, he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as a villain opposite Robert Mitchum in Crossfire, then in the 50s he stayed in demand, and played a villain opposite Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock, and as another villain opposite Jimmy Stewart in The Naked Spur. The man was a star.
Ryan played three of his best known roles in the 60s. He played General Gavin in The Longest Day, the sneaky Colonel Breed in The Dirty Dozen, and bounty hunter Deke Thornton in The Wild Bunch.
But he had a million movie roles, also acted in the theater, including opposite Katherine Hepburn in Antony and Cleopatra, and had frequent TV guest roles. He was originally slated to play Commodore Decker in the Star Trek episode The Doomsday Machine, but bowed out due to another commitment.
This TCM segment by Ernest Borgnine on Robert Ryan is worth watching, and you can quickly get a sense of how powerful his presence was.
Ryan died in 1973, shortly before his last movie hit theaters – The Iceman Cometh, where he costarred with Lee Marvin, Frederick March, and Jeff Bridges.
Here’s a partial list of directors who cast him in their films. OMG!
John Frankenheimer! Jean Renoir! Max Ophüls! Fritz Lang! Mel Ferrer! Sam Peckinpah! Nicholas Ray! Ida Lupino! Anthony Mann! Jacques Tourneur! John Sturges! Edward Dmytryk! Robert Aldrich! Rene Clement! The directors who knew anything knew they wanted Robert Ryan.
Tough Guy Liberal
Despite playing so many dark, dangerous and often villainous tough guy characters who could be racist, antisemitic, and reactionary, Ryan was a longtime liberal. He was in his 30s during the Second World War and unlikely to be drafted, but he volunteered for service, and due to his age was given a stateside position.
His wife Jessica was a Quaker and a committed pacifist, and Ryan shared a lot of her views. He stood up to the House Un-American Affairs Committee as they probed supposed Communist infiltration of Hollywood, and he cofounded a group working for de-escalation of the nuclear arms race. Ryan became friends with Harry Belafonte when they costarred in Odds Against Tomorrow, which Robert Wise directed between Run Silent Run Deep and West Side Story. The movie sounds terrific, by the way — check out this article. It has a soundtrack by the Modern Jazz Quartet! Ryan then joined Belafonte as a backer of the civil rights movement, and raised money for Martin Luther King.
He campaigned for Eugene McCarthy in 1968 as described in this excerpt from his biography. That excerpt also describes a party he held at his apartment in The Dakota in New York City after a benefit in honor of Woody Guthrie, with guests such as Bob Dylan, Odetta, Simon and Garfunkel, and Judy Collins. A couple of years later, Ryan sublet that apartment to John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
Ryan and John Wayne
Ryan costarred twice with John Wayne, first in The Flying Leathernecks in 1951, then in The Longest Day in 1962. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide what they thought of one another. Ryan was a liberal, Wayne was a hardcore reactionary, so how did they get along?
A gossip column once floated this item. It claims “John Wayne and Robert Ryan forgot their never-discuss-politics rule and wound up swinging at each other. John called Robert’s sweet young thing of the moment a “dirty Commie” and was promptly pushed through a restaurant window by a very angry Mr. Ryan. It took three squad cars of cops to break up the brawl which ended with Robert snarling and spitting blood, and John saying nothing at all because he had lost his false teeth.” Another account simply said Wayne was baiting Ryan, who challenged Wayne to a fight, but others calmed both men down before it escalated any more.
Meanwhile in 1962, The Saturday Evening Post ran this nugget in a profile of John Wayne:
“When Robert Ryan’s wife and children received a bomb threat last year, because Ryan had read part of Robert Welsh’s John Birch Society “Blue Book” on a Los Angeles radio station [note: the ultra rightwing Birchers wanted this information buried], Ryan and Wayne were in France, working on the Longest Day. Wayne was the first to offer help. He wanted to rush home and help Ryan find the would-be bombers and beat them to a pulp.”
Barbequed Spareribs a la Robert Ryan
Getting at last to the recipe here. In 1955, the Terre Haute Tribune copied this recipe from the celebrity cookbook What Cooks in Hollywood, which was published for the benefit of the Disabled American Veterans Service Foundation. No doubt some Marines who Ryan had trained as a Drill Sergeant would have come back disabled, so this would have been a cause he supported.
- 1/4 cup vinegar
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 Tablespoons sugar
- 1 Tablespoon prepared mustard
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
- 1 thick slice lemon
- 1 sliced medium onion
- 1/4 cup butter or margarine
- 1/2 cup catsup
- 2 Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 1 1/2 teaspoons liquid smoke (optional)
- 4 pounds spareribs
Mix first 10 ingredients in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer 20 minutes uncovered. Add next three ingredients and heat to boiling.
Precook ribs in a pressure cooker, then place over glowing coals on a grill about five minutes per side and baste with the sauce.
I kind of made this sauce, just sort of eyballing the quantities. I didn’t have Worcestershire sauce so I just added another squirt of catsup and some Vietnamese fish sauce. I left out the liquid smoke. It’s pretty decent — more sour and less sweet than a lot of bottled BBQ sauce, and the onion and mustard adds a nice flavor.
I cooked the ribs in a smoker instead of a pressure cooker because that’s a much better way, but I could see an argument for using an instant pot to stew the ribs. Not as good, but maybe worth trying if you can’t grill.
So that’s Robert Ryan. I’m going to look out for some of his movies now that he’s in my memory banks. Maybe some enterprising Youtuber someday will recreate a clip of The Doomsday Machine with his face and voice edited in.