Robert Bushnell Ryan was born on November 11, 1909 in Chicago, Illinois. Robert graduated from Dartmouth College in 1932, having held the school's heavyweight boxing title all four years of his attendance. After graduation Ryan found employment as a stoker on a ship, a WPA (Works Progress Administration) worker, and a ranch hand in Montana.
Ryan attempted to make a career in show business as a playwright, but was forced to start acting in order to support himself. He studied acting in Hollywood and appeared on stage and in small film parts during the early 1940s beginning with The Ghost Breakers and Queen of the Mob both for Paramount Pictures in 1940.
In January 1944, after securing a contract guarantee from RKO Radio Pictures, Ryan enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and served as a drill instructor at Camp Pendleton, California. At Camp Pendleton, he befriended writer and future director Richard Brooks, whose novel, The Brick Foxhole, he greatly admired. He also took up painting.
Ryan's breakthrough film role was as an anti-Semitic killer in “Crossfire” (1947), a film noir based on Brooks's novel. The role won Ryan his sole career Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor. From then on, Ryan's specialty was tough/tender roles, finding particular expression in the films of directors such as Nicholas Ray, Robert Wise and Sam Fuller. In Ray's “On Dangerous Ground” (1951) he portrayed a burnt-out city cop finding redemption while solving a rural murder. In Wise's “The Set-Up” (1949), he played an over-the-hill boxer who is brutally punished for refusing to take a dive. Other important films were Anthony Mann's western “The Naked Spur” (1953), Sam Fuller's uproarious Japanese set gangland thriller “House of Bamboo”, “Bad Day at Black Rock” (both 1955), and the socially conscious heist movie “Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959). He also appeared in several all-star war films, including “The Longest Day” (1962) and “Battle of the Bulge” (1965), and “The Dirty Dozen” (1967). He also played John the Baptist in MGM's Technicolor epic “King of Kings” (1961) and was the villainous Claggart in Peter Ustinov's adaptation of “Billy Budd” (1962), “The Professionals” (1966).
Ryan appeared in four Euro-westerns: “The Canadians” (1961), “Custer of the West” and “A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die” (both 1967) and “Lawman” (1971).
Ryan died of lung cancer on June 11, 1973 in New York City, New York.
Today we remember Robert Ryan on what would have been his 105th birthday.