“I have a vivid memory of my dad speaking at a political event,” remembers Cheyney Ryan, “and joking about how often he played characters who embodied the sort of bigotry he fought against all his life.” Since audiences are known for confusing the performance with the reality, it is not entirely surprising that one of Hollywood’s most socially liberal and politically active stars would be often associated with the narrow-minded racist characters he regularly portrayed. Robert Ryan excelled in these roles primarily because he underplayed them, establishing a depth far greater than the one-dimensional performances of other actors in the 1940s and 50s. He instilled a certain complexity in these men, eschewing any overwhelming rationale that they possessed an unnatural evil. Ryan’s characterizations are effective because he makes these people particularly ordinary, despite their misguided aims.

“A few actors have the ability to play anything, but most have their strengths and their weaknesses” posits Walker Ryan. “My father’s strength seemed to be troubled souls, something he brought to much of his work.”

Ryan began earnestly enough, while still a teenager in the late 1920s, as a bit player in a pair of silent films for Essanay studios. At Dartmouth, he pursued a degree in literature and excelled in boxing, becoming heavyweight champion in his freshman year (where he remained undefeated during his entire college career). During the height of the depression, Ryan took a job as an engine room janitor on a freighter bound for Africa. Two years later, he returned to America with a renewed interest in the theater, surviving on odd-jobs between small parts in infrequent plays. After a performance in Somerset Maugham’s Too Many Husbands in 1940, a talent scout from Paramount Studios approached him with a contract for a mere $75 per week.

CROSSFIRE (1947)

After a half-dozen years in mostly unsatisfying films, Ryan experienced an unbelievable stroke of luck. During his stint as a Marine drill instructor at Camp Pendleton, Ryan met screenwriter Richard Brooks, who had recently completed a novel entitled The Brick Foxhole. Ryan suggested that he be cast in the role of Montgomery, the anti-hero of the text, should the book ever be developed into a feature film. Two years later, the proposal became reality when director Edward Dmytryk and executive producer Dore Schary assembled the three Roberts (Ryan, Mitchum and Young) for Crossfire, a message-laden film noir. Ryan had worked with Dymtryk three times previously, particularly on his first feature film (Golden Gloves) and the controversial Tendre Comrades, and there is a visible ease in his performance due possibly to this earlier experience. In grand Hollywood style, the initial premise of the novel (homophobia, although still implied) was transmuted to the more acceptable societal malaise of anti-Semitism.

Returning from the second World War, three soldiers encounter an overly polite gentleman in a bar and eventually find themselves in his apartment. A misunderstanding leads to unprovoked violence and an elaborate, circumstantial plan to frame the deed on an innocent man. Ryan’s tempered performance owed greatly to his days studying the “method” with Vladimir Sokoloff at Max Reinhardt’s Actors’ Workshop. He created a believable quiet intensity as the bigot Montgomery, calmly concealing actions which characteristically required further acts in ever-larger concentric circles from which there is no escape.

Despite expectations of failure, the film became RKO’s highest grossing film of 1947 and was awarded Best Picture by the National Board of Review. Ryan, in turn, was nominated for an Academy Award, but ultimately lost to Edmund Gwenn (Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street).

BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1954)

The success of Crossfire was a mixed blessing for Ryan. Now considered a minor star, he was still type-cast as a “heavy.” Naturally, when casting was pursued for Bad Day at Black Rock, producer Dore Schary returned to Ryan for the seminal small town bully Reno Smith.

On a particularly hot day in the Arizona desert, a train makes an unexpected stop in Black Rock. John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) is the lone passenger to exit at this desolate locale and the citizens make it clear early on that strangers are not welcome here. However, as all men must, Macreedy has a mission -- recently returned from active duty, he intends to deliver a war medal to Komoko, the father of a friend killed in action. Everyone is silent as to the whereabouts of the man until Macreedy happens upon Reno Smith (Ryan), who reveals that Komoko was taken away to a Japanese internment camp. Macreedy, suspicious of this information, investigates further and gradually discovers that Smith was denied acceptance into the military for medical reasons. Bursting into a violent, drunken rage when Pearl Harbor was bombed, Smith gathered his friends together for some “fun.” They traveled out to Komoko’s farm, ruthlessly murdering the man and burning his house to the ground, forcing the entire town into complicity over his irrational crime.

Although Bad Day is generally the most popular and best-known of Ryan’s bigot trilogy, the film is also the least successful. John Sturges’ direction is exceptional, William Mellor’s lush cinematography is quite proficient, and the character parts (ably portrayed by Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Walter Brennan) are well-cast and add a necessary depth to the picture. Even still, the scenario fails primarily because it never confronts the issue it centers around. With no Asian characters in the film, the context remains more concerned with the character’s previous actions than about the causes that created them.

ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959)

In the late 1950s, Robert Ryan became involved in a low-budget film at the request of the project’s star and producer, Harry Belafonte. On the surface, Odds Against Tomorrow was a simple crime drama gone wrong; slightly deeper, the picture was permeated with a complex dose of racial hostility. Financed by Belafonte’s short-lived Harbel Productions, Odds Against Tomorrow largest asset was an intelligent script by John O. Killens that implicated each of the characters, bringing every individual weakness into full view.

Ryan stars as Earle Slater, an embittered ex-convict looking for a big heist that will finally settle him into a life of ease. Dave Burke (Ed Begley) interests Slater in a “can’t loose” bank robbery, and together with Jazz vibesman Johnny Ingram (Belafonte), they head into upstate New York to complete their nefarious plan. Each of the losers suffers from desperate economic conditions and failing romantic relationships that lure them reluctantly into the task. Unsurprisingly, although numerous problems develop in the course of the noir-ish tale, it is fundamentally Slater’s inherent racism that unravels the deal.

Directed by Robert Wise (The Haunting, West Side Story), with an exceptional score by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, Odds Against Tomorrow was well-received critically when it was initially released but the subject matter left the film largely unseen. Ryan was particularly satisfied with the movie, and whether he decided that this was his finest “hate” role or another equally tantalizing and unknown reason, he left the racist roles thereafter to other actors.

“Over the years, I’ve come to think that what my father did bring to the table was a kind of internal acting that we take for granted now,” surmised Walker Ryan. “He was, in a way, one of the first of the modern actors in terms of expressing the complexity, ambivalence and vulnerability of a character.” Robert Ryan had the range for any number of roles and occasionally the studios would allow these other aspects of his abilities to surface (such as Fred Astaire comedy The Sky’s the Limit) or producers would see through his reputation and cast him against type (as in the 1970s made-for-television The Front Page). Yet he returned, again and again, inevitably to the heavy. Perhaps fortunately, as Cheyney Ryan explains, “It seems that history remembers these sorts of roles better than many others.”