Robert Ryan

On the occasion of Robert Ryan’s 100th birthday, his family shared an autobiographical letter, around which J.R. Jones wrote a terrific article (with filmography) in the Chicago Reader.  As Ryan’s daughter wrote, “You wonder, looking at some of the parts that he played in movies, what it was in him that was able to access those really dark, scary characters.”  The menace that he conveyed did feel more like a reality than a portrayal.  Especially in black-and-white, his eyes were so dark that something infinite — at times infinitely scary — seemed to lie behind them.  Yet the effect was usually far more magnetic than repellent, which only made it more frightening, of course.

My apologies because the following is a little personal, though hopefully not self-indulgent.  I was moved by the account of the 22nd Street tunnel tragedy, and then it occurred to me that my father, who was 19 at the time, was living in Little Italy just a few blocks away.  Though his childhood was very different from Robert Ryan’s, my dad also became a dedicated actor (though not a professional).  And like Ryan, he was half Irish.  They had some things in common, including those dark moods.

Two of Robert Ryan’s films — “Crossfire” and “Billy Budd” — made a deep impression on me as a young man.  Eventually, he inspired a song and graced the cover on my humble first CD, called Sweet Science. The cover photo is from one of his best movies, “The Setup.”  (Whoever called boxing the “sweet science” probably never stepped into a ring.)

A couple of the song’s lines are verbatim from “Crossfire,” but it could just as well be about my dad, or the songwriter, for that matter.

He’s got eyes like two little bits of coal
Dark smudges on the windows to his soul
And there’s something smoldering just below
He’s got eyes like two little bits of coal


I wrote those words after seeing Robert Ryan as the sadistic master-at-arms John Claggart in “Billy Budd,” based on the Melville book.  I’ve always wondered if “Moby Dick” might have earned a spot on the short list of all-time greatest films if Ryan had played Ahab. Gregory Peck was perfect as Atticus Finch, but I could never buy him as Ahab — too much the nice guy trying to play mean. Instead, watch the Billy Budd trailer for a small taste of Ryan tapping his inner Cheney.

When writing this song, I’d been listening to a lot of Dock Boggs — another dark fellow. It also includes a little Muddy Waters and Captain Beefheart, for what it’s worth. Those three didn’t make boy’s music; as Levon Helm might say, “It’s an adult dose.” Something about all of them and about Ryan just spoke to me as I moseyed toward middle age.  With time, I’ve come to relate better — sometimes all too well — to the wellspring of anger that often defined my father’s passion for acting, which he pursued well into his 70s.  When mortality starts coming into view, hanging onto that sort of intensity isn’t easy.  So if the alternative is resignation, I’m proud to be a slightly pissed-off old guy.

Robert Ryan by Vernam Cipher

He’s got eyes like two little bits of coal
Dark smudges on the windows to his soul
There’s something
smoldering just below
He’s got eyes like two little bits of coal

Now he’s in one of his Robert Ryan moods
One more drink, man, I wish you would
Don’t try talking sense
It won’t do any good
When he’s in one of his Robert Ryan moods

He knows it’s wrong, and that just makes it worse
Has a way with words, knows how to make them hurt
Even when he says a prayer,
it sounds more like a curse
He knows it’s wrong, and that just makes it worse

Did two hitches back in the second war
Those SOBs never knew what they were in for
He’s not the type
to tell you what he saw
when he was fighting in the second war

So he’s out getting stinko with some friends
If he ever bothers coming home again
He’ll be reeking of cheap gin
and trying to make amends
When he’s finished getting stinko with his friends

He’s a hot head, there’s no use to deny it
He’ll promise next time that he’s really gonna try
Do you believe it?
Well, it’s a lie
He’s a hot head, and there’s no use to deny it

He doesn’t mean to take it out on you
But he’s in one of his Robert Ryan moods
You don’t know how he’s tried
How it tears him up inside
Every time he takes it out on you

He has his bad days, he has his good
Just watch out for those Robert Ryan moods
Just watch out for those Robert Ryan moods
Just watch out for those Robert Ryan moods

 

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