“A]n engaging biography of a Golden Age movie star who was a welcome presence even if — and perhaps particularly when — he lit up the screen with a sneer and... [continued in Reviews below]”—Douglass K. Daniel, Associated Press
The definitive biography of the legendary film noir actor
The Lives of Robert Ryan provides an inside look at the gifted, complex, intensely private man whom Martin Scorsese called “one of the greatest actors in the history of American film.” The son of a Chicago construction executive with strong ties to the Democratic machine, Ryan became a star after World War II on the strength of his menacing performance as an anti-Semitic murderer in the film noir Crossfire. Over the next quarter century he created a gallery of brooding, neurotic, and violent characters in such movies as Bad Day at Black Rock, Billy Budd, The Dirty Dozen, and The Wild Bunch. His riveting performances expose the darkest impulses of the American psyche during the Cold War.
At the same time, Ryan’s marriage to a liberal Quaker and his own sense of conscience launched him into a tireless career of peace and civil rights activism that stood in direct contrast to his screen persona. Drawing on unpublished writings and revealing interviews, film critic J.R. Jones deftly explores the many contradictory facets of Robert Ryan’s public and private lives, and how these lives intertwined in one of the most compelling actors of a generation.
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Reviews / Endorsements
“[A]n engaging biography of a Golden Age movie star who was a welcome presence even if — and perhaps particularly when — he lit up the screen with a sneer and filled it with menace. His many lives — stage and television performer, political activist, progressive education proponent, husband and father — are finely detailed by Jones with the help of Ryan's private writings and those of his wife, Jessica, a novelist. Jones describes a complex man who grappled publicly with the world's demons and privately with his own, among them alcohol and depression.”—Douglass K. Daniel, Associated Press
“[Robert Ryan] has begun to get the appreciation he deserves. A revival was marked last year by the publication of a good biography, The Lives of Robert Ryan by J.R. Jones.”—David Bromwich, London Review of Books
“The complex interplay between the private man, the actor, and the roles Hollywood gave him is the subject of The Lives of Robert Ryan, a sensitive and engrossing new biography by J.R. Jones, a film critic and editor for the Chicago Reader. … The Lives of Robert Ryan is a worthy biography, and, above all, an opportunity to revisit the films in which the actor still lives.”—Imogen Sara Smith, Film Quarterly
“On screen, there always was something unsettling and unsettled behind Robert Ryan's eyes. [H]e was perfect for post-World War II film noirs and westerns. He made a lot of fine ones, and his performances, often elevating the stereotype of the heavy, didn't offer an escape from the real world. A new biography of Chicago native Ryan, just published by Wesleyan University Press, addresses that essential paradox. Chicago Reader film critic J.R. Jones is the author of The Lives of Robert Ryan. In 2009 Jones gained access to an unpublished Ryan manuscript, written for his children, in which the actor recalled his North Side childhood.”—Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
“Jones has done a superb job in researching Ryan's writings, wife Jessica's memoirs, and interviewing his children and numerous industry colleagues. A masterly biography that portrays an actor devoted to his craft and dedicated to his personal convictions.”—Richard Dickey, Library Journal
“Merchant seaman, stevedore, Marine drill instructor, gold miner, cowhand—these might sound like roles Robert Ryan played on screen, but they’re actually facets of his own life before he became one of Hollywood’s most respected actors. J.R. Jones has done remarkable, insightful research into Ryan’s life not just as an actor, but as a liberal activist, an educator (he co-founded one of L.A.’s most progressive schools) and a family man. It’s a revelatory book, superbly written and worthy of the fascinating man at its center.”—Jim Beaver, Roundup Magazine
“Martin Scorsese rightly called Robert Ryan ‘one of the greatest actors in the history of American Film,’ and J.R. Jones in his excellent biography shows what a fascinating career it as—complicated, contradictory, accidental…Jones’ thoughtful, thoroughly researched book takes a balanced view of Ryan’s achievements.”—Phillip French, Sight & Sound
“Jones (a film critic and an editor) provides not only a thorough analysis of the character and professional career of film actor Robert Ryan (1909–1973) but also a detailed political history of Hollywood during the late 1940s and 1950s. … Jones’s prose flows smoothly; his thorough research and appendix, notes, bibliography, and index are praiseworthy.”—R. Blackwood, Choice
“Elegantly and with sparing opinionating, Chicago Reader film critic J.R. Jones maps the particulars of Ryan’s lives—his film roles but also his stage work, home life, political activism, and co-founding of California’s progressive Oakwood School. … Jones lets Ryan’s words and those of his family and colleagues dig at the actor’s contradictions, the story behind that twinkling, black-eyed gaze.”—Justin Stewart, Film Comment
“Ryan was born in Chicago, so it’s fitting that a Chicago critic would be behind the new biography The Lives of Robert Ryan. Written by the Chicago Reader’s J.R. Jones, the book provides the first extensive look at Ryan's life, from his life as a child of a Chicago contractor with strong political ties to his work as a liberal activist at the height of the blacklist, and beyond.”—Keith Phipps, The Dissolve
“As self-effacing yet as solid and as ethically engaged as Robert Ryan himself, J.R. Jones offers a comprehensive and sensitive chronicle of one of the giants of American movie acting.”—Jonathan Rosenbaum, author of Movie Wars
“Too many critical biographies lurch back and forth between biography and criticism. Jones weaves the criticism in the biographical fabric, and the finished product has a very friendly mien—The Lives of Robert Ryan is a book you will want to spend time with.” —Kent Jones, author of Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism
“J.R. Jones’s meticulous, revealing book on Robert Ryan places the actor’s life and career against the turbulent politics of the Cold War and the Red Scare in Hollywood. Jones is especially adept at moving between the life and the work, the films and their contexts. He introduces political history throughout, in ways that are both relevant and revelatory.”—Foster Hirsch, author of The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir
“The Lives of Robert Ryan is a well-written, insightful biography on an important Hollywood actor who is finally getting the attention he deserves. Ryan was a fearless liberal who embraced controversial causes during a time when most Hollywood stars remained apolitical. Even many film scholars are unaware of this aspect of Ryan’s career. This biography emphasizes it.”—Richard B. Jewell, author of RKO Radio Pictures: A Titan is Born
J.R. Jones is an award-winning film critic and editor for the Chicago Reader. His writing has appeared in New York Press, Kenyon Review, Da Capo Best Music Writing, and Noir City. He lives in Chicago.