A close friend of Lee Marvin.
According to his RKO biography, Ryan worked as a 'sandhog, seaman, sewer builder, salesman, miner, cowboy, bodyguard-chauffeur to a mobster, photographer's model, W.P.A. laborer and paving supervisor'.
At Dartmouth College, Ryan was on the boxing team and posted a 5-0 (3 knockouts) record. He also worked on the campus newspaper, and campaigned against Prohibition.
At the time he was diagnosed with cancer, he was scheduled to play "Don Quixote" in a film version of Miguel Cervantes' novel. It was Rex Harrison, however, who was finally seen as the Don in a 1973 made-for-television film of the book, a year after Peter O'Toole had starred in the film version (Man of La Mancha (1972)) of the Broadway musical "Man of La Mancha".
Campaigned for Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 Democratic primaries.
Co-founded the Theatre Group at the University of California at Los Angeles with John Houseman and Sidney Harmon in 1959. Nine years later in 1968 he co-founded the Plumstead Playhouse Repertory Company, with Henry Fonda and Martha Scott.
Due to his towering frame, cruelly-lined face and a simmering intensity uncommon in his generation of "tough guys", he usually played hateful villains. Even on the rare occasions that he played a good guy, they often possessed a violent, obsessive personality that was a tad unsettling.
He has three grandchildren, Tammy, Lisa, and Jeff from his son Cheyney.
He was a founder of SANE (an anti-nuclear action group) and a vocal supporter of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten during the 1950s.
Helped start Oakwood, a prestigious Los Angeles school.
His grand-daughter Katharine, by his son, Walker, is a Research Associate at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) in Portland, Oregon. She is named after her godmother, Katharine Hepburn.
His Shakespearean roles included "Antony and Cleopatra" with Katharine Hepburn in 1960, and the title role of "Othello" at the Nottingham Playhouse in England, also in the '60s.
His son, Cheyney C. Ryan, is a Research Fellow at Oxford University and a professor of Philosophy and Law at the University of Oregon. As a Harvard undergraduate, he was expelled due to his fervent activism in the civil rights and anti-war movements.
In 1973, he played the terminally-ill political activist Larry Slade in The Iceman Cometh (1973). Ironically, while filming, he knew he was approaching the final stages of lung cancer and died in July of that year. His wife Jessica had died just the year before, also succumbing to cancer.
Initially planned on studying at the Pasadena Playhouse, but instead became a student of Max Reinhardt in the late 1930s, where he met fellow student and future wife Jessica Cadwalader. Following their marriage, she gave up her acting aspirations and later became a children's fiction-book writer.
Originally intended to portray "Commodore Matt Decker" in the "Star Trek" (1966) (the original series) episode "Doomsday Machine", but was unable to do so. The character was intended as a Captain Ahab-type, obsessed with revenge for the loss of his crew. The role instead went to William Windom who portrayed Decker in a more tragic, sensitive light.
Ryan did not get along with John Wayne while filming Flying Leathernecks (1951), and was appalled by Wayne's active support for blacklisting in Hollywood.