I was delighted to find that Robert Ryan was recently featured with a cover story in the Chicago Reader, which also has the full text of a letter the actor wrote to his children relating his childhood and life in Chicago. There is also a list of highlights from his filmography.
Ryan is an actor who I've seen in several films before I ever really learned his name -- Crossfire, The Wild Bunch, The Professionals -- but who I always noticed on screen for his physical presence and the hard look conveyed through those squinting eyes and stoic profile. There's a lot of good little tidbits on his Wikipedia page, including his being a pacifist liberal Democrat who fought for civil rights issues who played criminals, soldiers, and even an anti-Semite (for which he was nominated an Oscar), running completely contrary to his personal beliefs and politics.
Don't know what's true on Wikipedia, but there's a great little paragraph written by Nick Ray in his semi-autobiography I Was Interrupted:
"With Bob Ryan there was always quick intellectual reception. I cast him opposite Wayne [in The Flying Leathernecks] because I knew that Ryan was the only actor in Hollywood who could kick the shit out of Wayne. That conflict was going to be real, so I'd have two naturals. I created the situation and enclosed them in a tent, using the space for tension, so you could expect that the moment Duke dropped his right, Ryan would stiffen, and pretty soon they'd bring the tent down around them. But the tent didn't collapse, and instead became the setting for 'No man is an island,' another expression of tension and space."
I could imagine Ryan gritting his teeth having to work with the Duke when their politics were antithetical to each other. Apparently Ryan was also a prize-winning boxer as a Marine, so him and the Duke having it out would have made for a pretty good brawl I think.
It's hard to pick a favorite performance, though I would have to say that his portrayal of the burnt-out cop in Nick Ray's noir melodrama On Dangerous Ground sticks out in my mind. He is pissed and tired and disillusioned and vulnerable to the soft touch a blind Ida Lupino. As a runner up I would pair his performance in The Wild Bunch or maybe Lang's Clash by Night, which he plays against another one of the best -- Barbara Stanwyck.
Enjoy this clip from Clash by Night: