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Actor Robert Ryan was The Wild Bunch's party man

An excerpt from J.R. Jones's new book, The Lives of Robert Ryan



In an October 2009 cover story, "The Actor's Letter," Reader film editor J.R. Jones chronicled the Chicago upbringing of Robert Ryan, whom Martin Scorsese has called "one of the greatest actors in the history of American film." Drawn from a short memoir Ryan wrote for his children, the story details his own father's ties to the Democratic machine as owner, with his four brothers, of a construction company that built city sewers. Ed Kelly—chief engineer of the Chicago Sanitary District and later mayor of Chicago—was a frequent guest in the Ryans' home, where the boy was exposed to both the egalitarian ideals of the Democratic Party (including, in Kelly's case, a relatively progressive attitude toward racial equality) and the low cunning needed to secure power. "The Actor's Letter" concludes in 1938, when Robert, a 28-year-old Dartmouth College graduate with no aptitude for business and a long work history of manual labor, set off for Hollywood to pursue a career in the movies.

Thirty years later, Ryan had become an ardent liberal activist—working tirelessly for the ACLU, United World Federalists, and especially the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE)—even as he grew typecast onscreen as a right-wing villain. He had also moved his wife and three children from Hollywood to Manhattan, where they occupied a ten-room apartment in the famous Dakota Apartments on Central Park (Ryan would later lease the unit to John Lennon and Yoko Ono). In this excerpt from Jones's new biography The Lives of Robert Ryan (Wesleyan University Press), the actor gets swept into the presidential campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy, which will ultimately bring Ryan home to Chicago for the 1968 Democratic convention.

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On a single weekend in January 1968, [Ryan] participated in two high-profile benefit concerts that brought together some of the biggest stars in the country: on Saturday, January 20, he provided narration for matinee and evening performances of a show memorializing folk singer Woody Guthrie at Carnegie Hall, and the following night, at Philharmonic Hall, he performed in a "Broadway for Peace" concert to raise campaign funds for U.S. congressmen who had taken stands against the [Vietnam] war. With the presidential election less than eight months away, the hot topic that weekend was Senator Eugene McCarthy, a vocal opponent of the war who had declared himself a candidate for the Democratic nomination and said he intended to beat President Johnson in the New Hampshire primary that coming March.

"Bob was a great fan of folk music, and his kids were very involved with it," remembered Millard Lampell, "particularly [his eldest son] Tim, who wanted nothing better than to be another Woody Guthrie." The revered songwriter had died the previous October after a 15-year battle with Huntington's disease, and his former manager, folk impresario Harold Leventhal, had organized the Carnegie Hall shows to raise money for Huntington's research, enlisting Lampell (who had performed with Guthrie in the Almanac Singers) and Will Geer (who had helped care for Guthrie in his last years). Lampell wrote a narration drawn from Guthrie's writings, to be performed by Geer and Ryan; the singers on the bill included Seeger, Odetta, Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, and the little-known Richie Havens, whom Lampell had discovered playing in the East Village. The star attraction, however, would be Bob Dylan, out of the public eye now for 20 months following a much-publicized motorcycle accident. "Carnegie Hall was entirely sold out two hours after the tickets went on sale," remembered Lampell. "There was a kind of electric excitement and anticipation."

[Ryan's second son] Cheyney came home for the show, and Lampell recruited [Ryan's youngest child] Lisa as a stage manager. Outside the concert hall, Seventh Avenue was mobbed with people trying to score tickets; inside, the performers gathered for a single rehearsal of the program. Dylan had brought his backup band, the Hawks, and when they launched into Guthrie's "The Grand Coulee Dam" that afternoon and evening, the house went wild. After the evening concert, the performers all were invited back to the Dakota for a party at the Ryans' apartment, which also drew Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, and Allen Ginsberg. Lisa listened incredulously as her father—who loved to tease her with his Dylan impersonation—told the wild-haired singer how much he admired his music. "Bob [Ryan] sat on the floor with his kids all around him," Lampell said, "and he listened to the singing, which lasted until two or three in the morning, and then a few of us stayed on rehashing what had gone on, and I had never seen Bob grin so much in my life."

The concerts generated $7,500 for Huntington's research, a relatively meager amount compared to the $100,000 raised for antiwar candidates at Philharmonic Hall on Sunday. "Broadway for Peace" was more of a showbiz affair, with appearances by Ryan, Harry Belafonte, Paul Newman, Tony Randall, Barbra Streisand, Leonard Bernstein, Diahann Carroll, Joel Grey, Alan Arkin, and Carl Reiner. The proceeds all were earmarked for legislative candidates—Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, Representative John Conyers of Michigan—who had voted against either the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized President Johnson to prosecute the war, or the $700 million appropriations bill that followed in 1965.

Newman and Randall both liked Eugene McCarthy and planned to campaign for him as the March 12 primary approached. McCarthy was the sort of politician Ryan respected; he was Catholic and, like [presidential candidate Adlai] Stevenson, a man of learning and of principle. "When he was alone he acted bravely, and I was moved," Ryan later said. On January 27 the national board of SANE cast its lot in a presidential race for the first time, endorsing McCarthy by a vote of 36 to zero.

To some degree the McCarthy endorsement was SANE's attempt to heal a terrible internal schism between energized radicals who wanted to end the war by any means available and conventional liberals who wanted to work inside the system. The leadership maintained a careful distance from communist or radical elements that might besmirch the group's reputation, even as the grassroots membership pushed for a broad coalition with antiwar groups across the political spectrum. The issue reached a boil in spring 1967 when SANE sat out the giant Spring Mobilization Conference in Washington, and boiled over in the fall when the organization declined to endorse the March on the Pentagon planned for October. Both Norman Cousins, who favored the more isolated approach, and Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose membership in other peace organizations had added to the friction, resigned from SANE. In the wake of this crisis, McCarthy offered SANE something most of its members could latch on to: a credible, articulate candidate who wanted a negotiated settlement between the United States and North Vietnam.

Whatever residual loyalty Ryan may have felt for Lyndon Johnson probably evaporated on January 30, the day he took part in the historic reopening of Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. Following the Lincoln assassination, the building had stood dormant for nearly 103 years, but now John Houseman was directing an opening-night tribute to the Great Emancipator, to be broadcast live on CBS. Ryan shared the narration with Henry Fonda and Fredric March, the three men positioned at lecterns across the very stage where John Wilkes Booth had cried "Sic semper tyrannis!" Odetta, Harry Belafonte, Andy Williams, Helen Hayes, Nina Foch, and Richard Crenna rounded out the cast, and the show was to begin with a statement from President Johnson. But that afternoon came reports that the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army had launched a giant surprise attack on key tactical zones in South Vietnam; the Tet offensive, so called because it violated a cease-fire set for the Vietnamese New Year, severely undercut the administration's rosy statements about the situation on the ground. Vice President Hubert Humphrey appeared on the program in place of LBJ, delivering a stone-faced introduction on the Lincoln legacy.

Public support for the war crumbled. Later that month, more than 500 Americans were reported killed in a single week, and the Selective Service System issued a new call for 48,000 soldiers. Ryan's next picture, a Warner Bros. western called The Wild Bunch, didn't start shooting until just after the New Hampshire primary, so the month before the vote he made himself available to the McCarthy campaign for the sort of retail politics his father had always practiced. Cheyney had decided to back McCarthy as well and stayed with his father a few times.

Seymour Hersh, the campaign's 30-year-old press secretary, had graduated from the University of Chicago and worked as a crime reporter for the City News Bureau. Later he would win a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the My Lai massacre, but at that point he was taking a break from journalism and, with some ambivalence, trying his hand at politics. He remembered eating dinner with Ryan at the Wayfarer Inn in Manchester, ordering a hamburger and slathering it with ketchup. "[Ryan] looked at me and he said, 'So, what part of Chicago are you from?' Very funny line." Ryan told him about his father's experiences as a Democratic committeeman, and they traded stories of civic corruption. Hersh was impressed by the depth of his affection for the city: "We talked about the fun of Chicago." With luck, they would be there in August for the convention, with McCarthy as the party's nominee.

"He was a bit mystified by his son," remembered Hersh, who lunched once with Ryan and Cheyney during the primary. "As I got to be a father, I could understand it. You know, they grow old, they separate. . . . There's this sort of mystery of why they're not eight anymore." The campaign staff were all young, and college kids flocked to support McCarthy, losing their beards, long hair, and psychedelic threads in response to the campaign's edict that they go "Clean for Gene." Yet a large quotient of McCarthy's financial support came from older, straighter New York liberals like Ryan, who had congregated around Stevenson. Paul Newman and Tony Randall turned up in New Hampshire, along with the poet Robert Lowell. The last weekend of the campaign, Ryan and Randall were "carefully juggled at shopping centers," according to one memoir, while Time reported that "Paul Newman's appearances had to be circumscribed for fear of a riot among Hampshire women."

Watching all this, Hersh would note how savvy Ryan was politically; Newman was always seeking advice on how to handle certain questions, but not Ryan. "He didn't have to be educated about what the best thing to say about the draft was. And there was never blowback on anything he said. Newman would sometimes be maladroit a little bit, but not really. He was smart enough to know what he didn't know. Ryan didn't have to be." The Saturday night before the primary, Ryan took to the podium in a ballroom of the Sheraton Carpenter Hotel to introduce McCarthy as the next president of the United States. That Tuesday, McCarthy won 42 percent of the Democratic vote, and Johnson only 49 percent. Exit polls suggested that McCarthy's strong showing may have been more of a generic no vote against the president than a protest against the war, but that didn't matter: Johnson was wounded.

A week later Ryan was back in Torreon, Mexico, rehearsing The Wild Bunch with director Sam Peckinpah. Like [his 1966 hit] The Professionals, it was a strenuous action picture with a tight shooting schedule of 80 days; for the first ten weeks they would be shooting in and around the sun-baked town of Parras, a 100 miles east of Torreon. "Sam takes you to the asshole of creation," explained crew member Gordon Dawson. "Everyone was worried about dying. You're rehearsing with full loads in the guns and horses that are skittish. When you're dealing with 30 or 40 horses, a lot of things can go wrong. . . . Off the set, we spent our time drinking and trying to get good food." Ryan had seen a lot of miserable locations, but this one was like a ghost town. Peckinpah had scouted it out with cinematographer Lucien Ballard, who was working with Ryan for the fifth and last time.

Scripted by Peckinpah and Walon Green, The Wild Bunch recalled The Professionals with its story of aging outlaws chafing against the modern age. The year is 1913: Pike Bishop (William Holden), Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), and their gang ride into a Texas town, disguised as soldiers, to steal a silver shipment from a railroad office, not realizing that Bishop's old partner, Deke Thornton (Ryan), waits on the roof of a building across the street with a gang of bounty hunters. Meanwhile, Peckinpah follows the progress of a local temperance meeting as a sermon gives way to a march through town with a brass band. These three narratives intersect when the outlaws emerge from the office with their booty, the parade crosses in front of them, and a rifle fight erupts between the outlaws and Thornton's crew. The next four minutes are complete chaos, with bullets tearing not only into people but out of them, and blood everywhere. The Motion Picture Association of America, representing the major studios, was in the process of scrapping the old production code in favor of a new ratings system, and The Wild Bunch would put it to the test.

As in The Professionals and The Dirty Dozen, Ryan's character was isolated from the macho crew of the title. Thornton once rode with Pike Bishop, until he was captured and sent to prison; now he has been offered his freedom if he captures or kills his old pal. Harrigan (Albert Dekker), the money man behind the posse, tells him, "You're my Judas goat, Mr. Thornton." Thornton wrestles with this epithet, and a quick flashback shows him stripped to the waist and suffering under the lash.

Thornton and his band of grimy reprobates set off in pursuit of Bishop, though Thornton has more respect for his old partner than his new ones. "We're after men," he tells the noxious Coffer (Strother Martin), "and I wish to God I was with them." By this time Bishop, Engstrom, their surviving gang members (Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Jaime Sánchez), and the cackling desert rat Freddie Sykes (film noir veteran Edmund O'Brien) have ridden into Mexico, where they enjoy themselves in the small town of Agua Verde and get caught up in a train robbery scheme on behalf of General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), its debauched ruler. The picture climaxes with an epic gun battle in the town square between the outlaws and the federales, replete with explosives and machine-gun fire. Thornton watches from a distance through binoculars as this unfolds. By the end of the bravura five-minute sequence, 112 people are dead; the total body count for The Wild Bunch would be 145.

With plenty of downtime during the shoot, Ryan pored over American papers for political news. Four days after the New Hampshire upset, Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York had declared his candidacy, angering the McCarthy faithful. By the end of March, President Johnson had seen the writing on the wall and announced that he would not seek reelection. Four days after that, on April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on a motel balcony in Memphis; a single bullet from a Remington pump-action rifle broke his jaw and neck and severed his jugular vein. Riots erupted that night in several American cities, including Washington, Baltimore, and Chicago. In Ryan's hometown—nearly a half century after the 1919 race riots of his youth—a three-mile stretch of Madison Street on the west side was consumed by fires and looting. Ryan had [met King through Harry Belafonte and had] brushed shoulders with King not only at civil rights events but through SANE; production records show Ryan missing from the set after King was killed, and Variety mentioned him flying to New York. Two weeks later he was back in Parras, where actors were being outfitted with exploding squibs to mimic bullet entry and exit wounds.

The McCarthy campaign had been turned on its ear by Kennedy's late entry and President Johnson's stunning abdication; now the Minnesota senator faced not an embattled president but the young heir to Camelot. Vice President Hubert Humphrey was the party establishment's choice to succeed Johnson, and though he had entered the race too late to compete in the elective primaries, he had the edge in the ones that were still negotiated in smoke-filled rooms. McCarthy's uneasy relations with organized labor and the black community made him a problematic candidate to win in the fall, and the contest between him and Kennedy turned bitter as RFK took Indiana and Nebraska and McCarthy defeated him in Oregon. In late May, The Wild Bunch company returned to Torreon, where news arrived the morning of June 6 that Kennedy, a decisive victor in the California primary, had been shot by Sirhan Sirhan in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. His assailant emptied a .22 revolver, sending one bullet into Kennedy's head, a second into his neck, and a third tearing through his chest. Kennedy died 26 hours later.

These horrible events could only have exacerbated the ongoing tension on the set. Peckinpah was a terrible hothead, and he liked to goad and bully his actors. Holden and Borgnine both had run-ins with him, and according to Holden biographer Bob Thomas, Ryan lost his temper with Peckinpah as well. After the company moved to Torreon, wrote Thomas, Ryan asked Peckinpah for a few days off so he could do some campaigning, but the director turned him down. "For ten days, Ryan reported to the set in makeup and costume. He never played a scene. Finally he grabbed Peckinpah by the shirtfront and growled, 'I'll do anything you ask me to do in front of the camera, because I'm a professional. But you open your mouth to me off the set, and I'll knock your teeth in.'"

Screen grabs from the final scene of The Wild Bunch (1969)
  • Screen grabs from the final scene of The Wild Bunch (1969)

Peckinpah may have provoked Ryan, but he also coaxed a superb performance from him. Like Hans Ehrengard in The Professionals, Deke Thornton is peripheral to the main action, yet he takes center stage in the denouement, after the wild bunch are wiped out and the bounty hunters arrive at the stricken town. Thornton finds his old friend Pike Bishop bloodied and dead, his arm hanging from the handle of a machine gun, and pockets Bishop's revolver as a memento. As his crew of scalawags loots the bodies, Thornton seems to buckle under the weight of it all; for hours on end he sits at the town gate, his horse standing by, as the bodies are carted out by the townspeople. Finally, the old codger Sykes rides up with a couple of Mexicans and an invitation to head out with them on some unspecified adventure. "It ain't like the old days," chuckles Sykes, "but it'll do." Thornton laughs, mounts his horse, and rides off with them, into the past.

Ryan flew home at the end of June, and that summer he and [his wife] Jessica stayed in the little town of Holderness, in central New Hampshire on Squam Lake. Campaigning in New Hampshire that winter had reawakened Ryan's love for the state, and the couple had a friend in Holderness—Harold Taylor, who had been president of Sarah Lawrence College and a human-rights adviser to Adlai Stevenson. That summer the film board at Dartmouth College programmed a Jean Renoir festival, and Ryan drove out to Hanover for a screening of [his 1947 film with Renoir] The Woman on the Beach. "Most of what I said was about you," Ryan wrote to Renoir the next day, "how important it has been in my life to have worked with you and to call myself your friend." By the end of the summer the Ryans had bought a piece of land in the Shepard Hill neighborhood of Holderness and were planning to build a second home on it.

Before returning to New York, Ryan traveled to Chicago to serve as a McCarthy delegate at the Democratic National Convention. McCarthy had no path to the nomination: by the time the elective primaries wrapped up in New York on June 16, Humphrey had a commanding lead in the delegate count, and McCarthy was too diffident a character to woo uncommitted delegates to his side. Senator George McGovern of South Dakota had leaped into the race as well, which would probably divide the anti-Humphrey vote at the convention. Ryan went anyway, largely to please a friend who was the head of the New York delegation. In Chicago he shared a hotel room with his son Cheyney and tended to his duties at the International Amphitheatre, while the younger man demonstrated against the war in Grant Park.

Cheyney asked his father if he could get him into the convention hall, and Ryan sounded out the head of the New York delegation for a second pass, with no luck. "The convention was being run by Mayor Daley, who was a big Humphrey supporter," Cheyney recalled. "So he wasn't gonna give anything to the McCarthy people." While Ryan was on the floor of the convention, however, a representative of the Pepsi-Cola Company approached bringing good wishes from Joan Crawford, whose late husband, Alfred Steele, had been president of the company, and who now served on the board of directors. "Ten minutes later, we have a pass to the convention!" said Cheyney. "I always thought, 'Well, that's an interesting anecdote about who runs the world.'"

Tension filled the convention hall: TV screens showed Chicago police clashing with protesters on Michigan Avenue outside the Congress Hotel, where Humphrey was staying. "When you were in the convention they had TV coverage everywhere," said Cheyney. "And most of the time they weren't showing what was going on in the convention, they were showing all these battles going on. . . . I was kind of bouncing back and forth. There was one night when I was there when all the police stuff was going on. And I remember another night I was actually in the convention. So it was quite an experience." Disgusted with the whole situation, his father decided to go home, leaving Cheyney with the hotel room for another few days. Ryan missed the climactic police riot on August 28, but it was all over TV, and as the protesters pointed out, the whole world was watching. Anyone with a grasp of electoral politics knew what all this meant: Richard Nixon was going to be president of the United States.  v

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