Robert Ryan, one of the most brilliant and versatile actors of his time, created a gallery of unforgettable characters during his thirty year career, yet never received the recognition he deserved. Franklin Jarlett's Robert Ryan: A Biography and Critical Filmography goes a long way towards filling this void; it is a fitting tribute to a great performer, who by all accounts was as good a man as he was an actor.
Jarlett's fascination with Robert Ryan began in childhood, as he watched Ryan's films on TV, and his "obsession" continued as he matured. Jarlett was especially mesmerized by Ryan's portrayal of Claggart, in Billy Budd, seeing it as "a chapter to an elusive text of which I did not know the title." Through college and graduate school, Jarlett continued his "quest" for the mysterious qualities which made Ryan so extraordinary. This book is the result, and the author's three years of extensive research, interviews with Ryan's children and many friends, and his in-depth study of the 77 film Ryan made during his prolific film career make this a fascinating and readable must for any Ryan fan's library. Written with an eloquence of which the very literate Ryan would surely approve, the book is loaded with photos as well; stills from nearly all of Ryan's films illustrate the book.
By an ironic twist of fate, Robert Ryan, a quiet, self-effacing man, who often graciously accepted second billing to far less talented co-stars, is suddenly "Hot," thanks to cable television, and to the proliferation of VCR and DVD players, which make older movies new again.. Turner Classic Movies' recent "Star of the Month" tribute to Ryan certainly had legions of his blissed-out fans manning their VCR's, and won him many new fans as well. Ryan's Westerns and his war films play endlessly on TV, and he is such a film noir icon that many of the excellent books on the subject devote entire sections to discussions of his artistry.
Jarlett's book is a perfect source for anyone who wants to know more about this complex and very private man who was such a compelling presence on screen. Ryan was a man of paradoxes. He graduated from Dartmouth with a degree in English Literature, but reigned as the undefeated heavyweight boxing champion throughout his four year college career. Though the product of a relatively prosperous family, Ryan sought out tough and demanding jobs: he worked as an engine room janitor on an African- bound freighter for two years, and as a cow puncher on a ranch in Montana, among other jobs, before finally finding his niche in acting. Ryan's World War II stint in the Marine Corps, though honorably served at Camp Pendleton where he was a drill instructor, sent him back into civilian life with distinctly pacifist leanings. Though Ryan could portray vicious, ignorant bigots with an almost frightening intensity, he himself was a tolerant, compassionate man, so dedicated to liberal causes that he was sometimes targeted and threatened by Right-wing fanatics. And unlike many in an ego-driven industry, Robert Ryan was a modest man. He was thrilled beyond words when he had an opportunity to work with such greats as Spencer Tracy and Frederic March, and never suspected how much younger actors, like Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, valued the experience of working with him.
The biographical section of the book is arranged chronologically, with each section corresponding to an important period in Ryan's life. Jarlett's meticulous research uncovered many hitherto unknown or forgotten facts, and they make fascinating reading. He discusses the founding of the Oakwood School, a progressive educational establishment started by Ryan and his wife Jessica when their own children were small, and still flourishing today. In the l960's, Ryan spent some time in England, and with the support and encouragement of actors John Neville and Paul Rogers, his co-stars in Billy Budd, he appeared on provincial and London stages in works by Shakespeare and Eugene O'Neill. After moving his family to New York, Ryan appeared in many television dramas,and did a number of narrations and voice-overs for various projects. He played the lead in The Front Page and other plays, both on and off Broadway, co-starring with Katherine Hepburn, Helen Hayes, and other renowned leading ladies, to great critical acclaim. But films continued to be the primary outlet for his talent, and he worked steadily in them until his death.
The second half of Jarlett's book is a complete filmography covering all of Ryan's work, from his earliest "walk-on" days at Paramount through his last three movies in l973, the year of his death: The Iceman Cometh, Executive Action, and The Outfit. Jarlett reviews each film, and supplies a complete cast list, as well as notes on critical and audience reception and other pertinent data. The book also contains notes on Ryan's stage performances, television appearances, narrations and recordings, an essay on Ryan as a film noir figure, and a listing of his films available on videocassette. Chapter notes, an extensive bibliography and an index complete this terrific volume. Though this book was originally written as a library reference guide, it has been reincarnated in a very portable paper back form, complete with a fabulous cover photo of Ryan as Montgomery in Crossfire.
Jarlett's book is clearly a labor of love, and perhaps this is the dominant impression. Far from being undervalued or unappreciated, Robert Ryan seems to have been revered and deeply loved by most of the people he came in contact with, and his talents have always been held in high esteem by those who value excellent acting. And those of us who know him only through the many films made unforgettable by his presence, can only be glad that the man himself was as fine as we have always imagined him to be.