WHAT IT'S LIKE TO BE A MOVIE STAR
A woman once spat on Robert Ryan because she hated a character he played on the screen. But, at four hundred dollars a day, this six-foot-three Irishman who once mined coal at Fernie, B.C., finds he can stand up to the arduous life of a star—even when he has to make love to Claudette Colbert
NOT LONG AGO I received a letter from a woman who had seen me slapping some fellow around in a movie. She wanted me to drop in and take a poke at her husband. I declined.
Just the other day a civic-betterment group asked me to say a few words at a public meeting summoned to discuss “Good Citizenship—Keeping Our Streets Clean.” I accepted.
Once, in New York, a woman stopped in front of me on a crowded sidewalk and spat on my face, after remarking, “I hate bigoted people!”
In many respects those three somewhat baffling occurrences indicate the peculiar existence I lead as a Hollywood movie star. It’s true that I enjoy my work and make a lot of money, live quietly and happily with my wife and two children. Just the same, it would be ridiculous to pretend my
average day or week resembles that of a prosperous young businessman living with his wife and two children in Santa Barbara or Winnipeg. I’m hardly ever allowed to forget that I’m a movie star and that millions of people either consciously or subconsciously identify film actors in private life with
Robert and Jessica, married in 1939. don’t own a swimming pool, are more interested in saving.
characters they play on the screen.
For example, the woman who wanted me to beat up her husband may have been remembering the rugged incorruptible boxer I played in The Set-Up, or perhaps the grim lover in The Secret Fury, who wouldn’t let anybody harm Claudette Colbert. Her type is a fairly familiar one in my mailbag.
I haven’t been playing many lawbreakers lately and the committee which invited me to make a speech about street-cleaning probably recalled me as the high-minded soldier in Berlin Express, or as the repentant ex-Communist in The Woman on Pier 13 who turns against the Reds and sacrifices everything to expose them. I wonder if the committee would have asked me if they had seen me in my new picture as a super-gangster.
The case of the woman who spat on me was uncommon, I’m glad to say. But it could happen
RYAN FINDS THIS SORT OF THING HARD WORK
BUT THIS COMES EASIER TO AN EX-HEAVYWEIGHT
at any time to an actor who plays a vivid and hateful role in the kind of screen drama that really gets under people’s skins. The incident occurred during the first general release of Crossfire, in which I appeared as a viciously intolerant ex-GI who beats a harmless Jew to death with his bare fists. Crossfire was the first of the Hollywood cycle of films attacking anti-Semitism and it hit a lot of people where they lived. When that woman saw me on the sidewalk she expressed her contempt for that movie murderer in the only way she knew—by insulting me.
A girl newspaper reporter, chatting with me recently in a theatre lobby at the premiere of one of my pictures asked: “Do you ever get really
used to it all—the adulation, the stares, the autographs, the publicity, the money?”
She may have been kidding, of course, because
adulation and money are two things anybody can get used to without the slightest difficulty. my own case, I still have indelible memories the depression days when I was hitchhiking all over North America, working as a day laborer, a sandhog and mining coal in British Columbia, often not knowing where my next meal was coming from.
My income before taxes is now a bit over four hundred dollars a day. I own nine suits and spend fifteen hundred dollars a year on clothing. My fan mail averages about three hundred letters
week, most of them complimentary. There are fourteen official Robert Ryan Fan Clubs, with a total membership of about four thousand. These loyal and vociferous Ryan boosters turn out in force to all my pictures and many go back to see them again and again. They also keef) asking the exhibitors to show more and more of my films. Requests of that kind, relayed back to Hollywood, never do an actor a bit of harm.
On the other hand, I must confess that I haven’t ever got used to being stared at and whispered about everywhere I go. I don’t kid myself that all these scrutinies are necessarily flattering: most of them are merely inquisitive. If I sit down in a restaurant I barely have time to glance at the menu before lam accosted by half a dozen people armed with pencils and autograph books. Much of the
time it’s only a
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scrap of paper or an old envelope that I’m asked to sign.
It’s possible, I suppose, to develop a resigned and good-humored philosophy about the goldfish-bowl phases of a movie star’s life, but it isn’t easy. For instance not a week goes by but somebody from the Press blandly asks me if my marriage is a success, and why. If an average husband, because of personal or business reasons, decided to stay in a hotel downtown overnight instead of going home nobody would get very excited about it. Let it happen to a well-known screen actor and a few hours later someone publishes a rumor that his marriage is breaking up.
The expression “fan mail” sometimes makes me squirm a little, because it sounds faintly patronizing, as if I thought of all those people as a mass of semimorons. Mind you, I’m not trying to convey an impression that most of my mail comes from university profeasors. The truth is that any morning’s delivery is likely to bring me thoughtful and stimulating letters from complete strangers, along with a swarm of gratifying but routine requests from people who merely want my autograph or a photo. Women write a lot offener than men, although I’ve never been the matinee-idol type of actor. About seventy percent of my mail is from people between the ages of twelve and thirty.
I employ a personal secretary, who deals with most of this mail. But I read all letters myself except the ones which only ask for my photo. And I personally dictate replies to any which ask specific questions. Not every letter is a heartwarmer. I get about ten a month which are obscene, or vindictive, or obviously crackpot in tone. Some of these couldn’t even be quoted in whispers in a men’s locker room.
So-called fan letters which start off by flattering me, and then tell sob stories and beg for money, are all turned over to my business manager. No doubt some of these are legitimate and deserving, but most of them are transparently phony. One fellow wrote to me solemnly threatening to kill himself if 1 didn’t engage him as a valet. There was also a worn-out prizefighter who offered to kill me unless I financed his business career. I disregarded both, with no ill effects to anybody that I’m aware of.
One thing I never expected when I first tackled Hollywood was that I’d eventually become in demand as a public speaker. I now make at least a hundred appearances a year before various organizations. Most of these speeches, I’m happy to say, are quite short. And I don’t mind admitting that some of them are “canned”—that is, prepared in advance and vague enough to cover almost any occasion. Requests for me to speak at banquets, meetings and other functions gained impetus after Crossfire. Even though I’d been the villain in the story, and a hateful one indeed, people suddenly became interested in my private views on tolerance and kindred matters. Today, I accept most invitations to speak before accredited groups, but I say “No” in a hurry whenever political controversy or a fund-raising gimmick is involved.
On the screen I often appear as a man who is very handy with his fists. 1 come naturally by this, because I’m pretty big and I keep myself in good condition. The producers have always known that I was lucky enough never
to be defeated in four years of amateur boxing as a college heavyweight. Yet outside the studio I have never been in a fist fight in my life. I’ve never either thrown or received a punch in anger, even though the public seemsconvinced screen tough guys are forever socking somebody or getting socked in bars and night clubs.
My parents held rather conflicting views about my upbringing. When I was eight and growing up in Chicago Mother got me started taking violin lessons. She yearned for me to express myself in music or the arts. Dan, an American-born Irishman, was a husky man who wanted his boy to be a battler. He snorted at the fiddle lessons and retaliated by hiring a professional boxing coach to teach me how to use my fists.
Up to then I had always shied away from fights with the other kids in our neighborhood. The boxing lessons began at just about the time a few of the rougher lads were getting ready to bully me. My increased confidence soon encouraged me to stand firm and outstare them whenever they tried to crowd me off the sidewalk. At the same time the bullies became a bit wary about risking an actual poke at me. The result was that I never did get into a boyhood scrap with anybody. When I grew up, I turned out to be quite a big fellow—too big for the average drunk or pugnacious screwball to feel like challenging. Anyway, I’m peaceful by nature and I don’t go around looking for trouble.
Not As Easy As It Looks
The brawls I take part in on the screen are usually charted as carefully in advance as the steps of a ballet. Individual shots can be cut and edited and put together with amazing results and, of course, the sound track can be doctored up to make a rehearsed hook to the jaw come booming against your eardrums like a battering ram crashing into a brick wall. In spite of all precautions, though, it’s possible to get hurt. I’ve accidentally mauled a few guys in my day, and I’ve been mauled in return. I do all my own screen fighting. The only time I evenuse a double is for extreme trick riding in westerns.
Film acting, I can assure you, is not as easy as it often looks. It’s mostly done in a sort of crazy-quilt succession of short takes, lasting only a few seconds each on the screen, and it’s not at all uncommon for a shot or an entire scene to be repeated twenty or more times before the director is finally satisfied. A love scene with the most alluring woman in the world becomes something less than exciting under
those conditions That’s a prime reason why I’ve been active lately in stage productions, to recapture the experience of building a role and shaping its momentum in front of an audience. Also, I’m hardly ever cast in a movie comedy, but on the summer stage last year I had the fun of playing the corrupt junk tycoon in Born Yesterday, the role ta*ken by Broderick Crawford in the film version. Marie (The Body) McDonald was my dumb-blonde girl friend.
I am now 38, but my 33-inch waistline is exactly the same ys it was 20 years ago. I’m 6 feet 3 inches tall and my weight is 194, which means that, if anything, I’m four or five pounds underweight for my height. I don’t have to bother with strict diets and never go near a gymnasium except .s a spectator. Chasing my small sons around the house gives me all the exercise I need.
One of the main reasons why I’ve never got fat is that for many years I haven’t been eating the usual three meals a day. 1 eat six -all of them small. This means I never stagger away from the table with that bloated feeling. I didn’t adopt this routine as a way of keeping lean: I just do it because I like it.
My first bite from the acting bug came at the age of nine in 1923. The old Essanay company was making silent movies in our district in Chicago. One day a few kids were selected from the street crowds to play bit parts and I was one of them. After that I imagined myself a towering figure in school dramatic productions, although I’m sure I was an awful little ham.
Below Ground in B. C.
I went to Dartmouth College, in the old New Hampshire city of Hanover. The university was chartered by George III, six years before the American Revolution. Daniel Webster is one of its patron saints. Later, I sometimes thought about all this with a trace of bitterness, while roughing my way around the world trying to earn a living, because my college background certainly didn’t help much in finding jobs during the depression.
I took a straight arts course and helped to edit the college paper. I also wrote plays, fiction and even a bit of poetry, but never sold a line. My efforts in boxing and football were more successful.
Before finishing college in 1932 at nineteen I had spent one very sweaty summer as a working cowboy on a Montana ranch. That was a picnic compared with some of the jobs I tackled later. At various times 1 was a seaman, door-to-door salesman, and even bodyguard-chauffeur to a bootlegger—for just one day, until I discovered who he was.
My travels took me to Canada for about four weeks in the fall of 1932, as a coal miner at Fernie, B.C. That was one of the most rugged months of toil I ever spent and for the rest of my life I’m retaining a healthy respect for all those guys who work below the ground.
Finally 1 landed a job as a WPA paving supervisor in Chicago. Eight regular hours of straw-bossing by day left me enough energy for night work so I grabbed a chance to direct an amateur stage production of Sir James Barrie’s comedy, Dear Brutus. This was with an all-girl cast at a private school. The play was quite a hit and I felt encouraged to start studying stagecraft with a stock-company veteran named Edward Boyle. I’m sure I wasn’t his brightest pupil but he taught me plenty.
In 1938 I got a lucky break. I had
saved a few bucks and invested them in a Michigan oil well and they paid off at a nice fat two thousand dollars. I packed up and moved to Hollywood and studied in the Max Reinhardt Workshop and under Vladimir Sokoloff. One day a man from Paramount saw me on the stage and hired me as a stock player at seventy-five a week. My adult screen debut was as a pro pug who muscled into the amateur fights in Golden Gloves, a ring epic released in August of 1940. A few months later came Cecil B. DeMille’s North West Mounted Police, with a
very inconspicuous Ryan as one of the Mounties.
Meanwhile I had married in 1939 a pretty girl named Jessica Cadwalader, one of my drama-school classmates. After my bit in (he DeMille picture several people earnestly suggested that I was not the type for a career in the movies. I was beginning to think so myself, so Jess and I went East and tried the stage again, touring the straw-hat circuits. The money wasn’t so good, but the experience was beyond all price.
Gradually a few of the critics began
writing nice things about me, especially when I played opposite Luise Rainer in A Kiss for Cinderella. It was the same when I appeared with the fabulous Tallulah Bankhead in Clash by Night. Hollywood was getting interested again and RKO came looking for me. They wanted me for what shaped up like a terrific role in Name, Age and Occupation, by Pare Lorentz, as a working man in search of security during the depression. I figured I would hardly need a script to play that part. The project, however, was shelved in a change of studio regime.
But I did get a fairly prominent role in Bombardier, released in the spring of ’43, and after that in several other war pictures, winding up with Marine Raiders, opposite Ruth Hussey and Pat O’Brien.
I was making love to Ginger Rogers, cinematically speaking, in a picture called Tender Comrade which came out at the same time I was enlisting in the Marine Corps in January of 1944. The fellows saw the film in camp and I was subjected to the usual ribbing. In the service they tabbed me as a physical education instructor, private first class. I didn’t get overseas.
Since the war I’ve been working steadily at RKO and J’ve been getting my share of pretty good pictures. One of my favorites was The Set-Up. I appeared as a tired third-rate professional boxer, a real ham-and-egger, and Audrey Totter was my wife, desperately anxious to persuade her man to quit the ring before his brains got muddled. That picture told the story of at least a hundred fighters I have known personally and all of us who had anything to do with it are proud that many people found it honest, moving and absorbing.
We in Hollywood are often accused of dwelling in our own snug smug ivory tower and of neither knowing nor caring what the rest of the world is doing, thinking and feeling. T guess there ctre some people in the film industry like that, but there are plenty of us who’ve been around enough to react quite differently. I’m not trying to suggest, mind you, that all movies should be serious or sociological in tone. We are entertainers; we’re in show business; we’ve got to satisfy a broad and varied public. But it’s rewarding to an actor—and usually, 1 believe, to the audience as wellwhen his role and the story surrounding it are related to real life as he knows it, whether the picture is a drama, romance, comedy or farce.
What! No Swimming Pool?
I am convinced that both the moviemakers and the customers are steadily becoming more mature in their tastes. Television seems to be bothering some of us as a threat to the whole industry, but personally I feel that it will merely force Hollywood (and the British and foreign studios, too) into an intelligent program of fewer and better pictures. TV won’t destroy the films any more than the films destroyed the s|tage, or the radio destroyed the phonograph.
In our eight-room bungalow on an acre of the San Fernando Valley my wife and 1 are getting a tremendous kick out of watching our two boys growing up. Timothy is five and Cheyney is three, and they are both terrors in the Irish tradition. We don’t own a swimming pool or a tennis court, but I do have a little hide-out at the back of the lot where I do my studying. Jess has turned most of our property into a garden and I spend quite a bit of time out there between pictures, although I’m not an expert gardener.
Jess, by the way, takes care of the children herself; we have no nurse, no governess. However, we employ a middle-aged married couple who look after the house. Jess does most of the cooking. Her specialties are seven kinds of omelet and an Italian dish she picked up somewhere called chicken catciatore. I don’t know how to describe it, but I certainly know how to put it away.
The Ryans live comfortably, but not lavishly. We don’t feel that we have to put up a big front to impress people and we’re more interested in building up a nest egg while the money is coming in. It has become fashionable for film
stars to emphasize their poverty but I don’t find it too difficult to get by on my income of about one hundred and fifty thousand a year. Taxes, of course, are tremendous. I’m expected to be a generous tipper and to make dozens of charitable contributions. But even after meeting these and many other expenses I find ample left to ensure a good savings program. Like most actors I employ a part-time business manager to look after my money. Unlike many, though, I don’t own any real estate or commercial enterprises. Most of my surplus is salted away in U. S. Government bonds.
My wife and I go to a night club about once a year. Most of our social life revolves around visiting our friends. Late nights are a poor idea in my business: I try to get to bed by eleven o’clock, or midnight at the latest. On a typical working day I’m up at six, drive myself to the studio in my Ford roadster, and eat breakfast on the set —usually a doughnut and coffee. T report to the wardrobe department at seven-thirty, but only go to the makeup department when I’m making a Technicolor picture. I work without make-up when appearing before a black-and-white camera.
I go before the cameras at nine and, as a general rule, we don’t break off for lunch until one. An hour later, sharp on the button, we’re back at work. At six o’clock we’re usually through for the day and I then join the boys for a beer and start home.
How long can I last in the movies? It’s a question we seldom ask aloud in this business, where a feeling of deep seated insecurity is likely to develop in spite of large incomes. In my own case, provided I continue to get a reasonable share of the breaks, I feel that I have at least twenty more good Hollywood years ahead of me. When I outlive the leading-man classification I confidently expect to become a character actor-—and, very probably, to get the most challenging roles of my career. Charles Boyer, William Powell, Paul Kelly, Herbert Marshall and dozens of others have succeeded in making this transition gracefully.
Some years ago an old joke was making the rounds about an actor who instructed his children to say that their daddy played the piano in a speakeasy —I think it was a speakeasy— whenever someone asked them what the old man did for a living, but on no account were they to confess that he was an actor. Those days, I am sure, are gone forever, and I’m glad of it. Actors who do good professional work and who behave like decent citizens in their private lives are generally respected nowadays in the community. I hope young Tim and Cheyney Ryan won’t be ashamed to tell anybody what their pop does for his bread and butter—-and gravy. +