Friday, August 13, 2010

Good-Hearted Movie Bad Guy

This month TCM is showing the movies of Robert Ryan, who was almost always seen hating somebody--Jews in "Crossfire," women in "Clash by Night," Japanese-Americans in "Bad Day at Black Rock."

In that one, he faced off against Spencer Tracy, another Irish-American who a generation earlier had become a star as his polar opposite, playing heroic priests and self-sacrificing best friends.

But life rarely imitates art. One night in the 1960s, I ran into Ryan in Westport, Ct. at a dinner for Dr. Benjamin Spock for his opposition to the war in Vietnam.

Dr. Spock was flabbergasted that we had left our families on a Saturday night to honor him, but I was not surprised to see Ryan there. A World War II Marine veteran, the actor had vocally opposed McCarthyism, spoken out for civil rights and worked to ban nuclear weapons.

On the drive back to Manhattan, we spent an hour talking mostly about our admiration for Spock, who was risking his fame and would later be indicted for treason trying to save future generations.

I dropped Ryan off that night at the Dakota on the west side of Manhattan, where he lived with his wife and three children. A few years later, he died of lung cancer and his apartment was bought by John Lennon, bringing to mind Hemingway's remark that "the world kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry."

Seeing Robert Ryan's movies now is always a reminder of how different he was in life. He was a very good actor and an even better man.

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