The passage of time has kept me from interviewing many of those who knew Lee Marvin, but I have had the good fortune to interview many of their offspring, such as Robert Ryan’s daughter, Lisa Ryan.
I was able to get in contact with her through a friend of friend and, like many individuals, she was reluctant at first. Not because she didn’t want to speak about her father but because she didn’t think she had anything worthwhile to share. Once I convinced her otherwise, readers of Lee Marvin Point Blank know she contributed one of the best anecdotes concerning the making of The Dirty Dozen. I won’t repeat it here as it should be read in its context.
I will, however, reprint excerpts from our talk that didn’t go in the book as I think some of her memories and observations concerning the underrated work of her father is worth it. Spoiler alert: Her story about seeing Bad Day at Black Rock should not be read if you haven’t seen the movie. If you have seen it, you’ll love the story. And so, here are the musings and anecdotes of Lisa Ryan, daughter of the great Robert Ryan….
Dwayne: Did you father ever talk to you about Lee? They worked together alot, like 4-5 times.
Lisa: They did, you know. I can’t really remember anything specific. This is the problem about memories with my dad because he’s been gone for so long.
D: Unfortunately. By the way, for the record, I was a huge fan. I think your father was the single most underrated actor in the history of motion pictures. He could do anything!
L: Yeah. The really nice thing is it seems almost like he’s more famous now then he was when he died.
D: Yeah, thankfully because of the renewed popularity of film noir and your father made some of the best.
L: Yeah. Do you know Eddie Muller?
D: Yes I do.
L: When I first met Eddie Muller, I didn’t…it was weird. I was living in San Francisco. I didn’t have any friends who were like movie buffs. I didn’t have a sense that anyone gave a shit about my father. It had been like several decades where every once in a while, my dad’s name would come up and whoever I was talking to would say, ‘Who’s that? I never heard of him.’ That’s what I assumed. Nobody knew who he was and then when I met Eddie Muller [laughs]…oh my god! Then I went to a couple of these noir festivals. People were coming up to me and saying, ‘May I shake your hand?’ I had never, ever experienced anything like that. I was just stunned. I thought, ‘Wow! Where have all these people been?’
D: Funny how that works. I think your father and Lee Marvin first worked together on Bad Day at Black Rock.
L: [laughs]. I have a funny story about Bad Day at Black Rock. When I was 12-years-old I was having a sleepover date with a friend of mine and we saw that Bad Day at Black Rock was going to be on TV. I called my father and said, “Hey, Bad Day At Black Rock is going to be on and we’re going to watch it.” He said, “Do not watch that movie. I do not want you to see that movie.” So, of course, we had to watch it [laughs]. What happened was, in the end when he gets set on fire, I totally flipped out. I was 12-years-old. I wasn’t a small child but I was so…[laughs] I called him and I said, “Are you alright?” [laughs]. He said, “I told you not to watch the movie.”
D: That’s adorable. I love stories like that.
L: It was sweet. Also, did Lee Marvin go through a phase where he was doing like TV stuff? Kind of a down phase?
D: In the 1950s, sure. He hit a ceiling of the character roles he played in films and wound up doing a TV series called M Squad, Ran from 1958-60. Kind of like Dragnet was with voice overs but he was a tough Chicago cop.
L: Yeah, because I remember watching something on TV with my dad….
D: Really? Do you remember your dad’s reaction?
L: Unfortunately it was..You know, I should just make something up. I’m a terrible interview. My recollection of so many things is just so vague. I just remember little fragments of things.
D: Fragments are good. You piece them together, you have a book.
L: [laughs]. I do remember watching, probably like The Twilight Zone. Was he on that?
D: Yes, he was, two of them.
L: Oooh. Interesting. I remember watching it with my dad. Here’s where it gets vague. I just remember that my dad was telling me that this guy…I can’t even remember what the hell he said. The gist of it was that this guy was a very, talented, wonderful actor. He was just sort of praising him. What I remember was I think it was the fact that he felt bad that Lee Marvin was on The Twilight Zone. He had to make a point of telling me that this guy was a great actor. I always remembered that, just kind of the feeling behind it, which was that it hurt my dad to see Lee Marvin doing The Twilight Zone. I think he did the same watching something Ray Milland was in, Frogs, I think. He said: “You should never ever criticize an actor for the material. He’s making a living and doing the best he can. Don’t laugh at him.”
D: I know at the end of career your father was in The Iceman Cometh and I believe it was his last film. Do you have any recollections of him being in that, or him talking about it?
L: Oh god, that movie is hard to watch because he looked…That’s the way he looked the last time I saw him. It’s easier to see him when he was younger in films.
D: He was sick when he made that, wasn’t he?
L: Oh yeah. He knew was dying which makes an incredible point because he’s sitting there talking about dying. That makes it hard to watch.
D: What was he like at home?
L: [long pause] Um….
D: What kind of dad was he?
L: It was hard. He was away for so much of the time. So, I didn’t feel really close. He always seemed sort of awkward with his own children. Maybe it’s just me. I don’t what my brothers would say…He always seemed like he kind of didn’t know what to talk about.
D: It’s a generational thing, having gone through the war and the Depression.
L: Yeah, he seemed kind of shy, in a funny way. But he and I had some sort of breakthrough. I think it was, it might have been that summer when he was making The Dirty Dozen where for some reason, we just started getting really close. I think it was actually we kind of bonded over Ring Lardner, of all people. But my dad had always been fond of Ring Lardner Senior…
D: That makes so much sense. The kind of stories Lardner wrote, I could see your father playing the characters in those stories.
L: Yeah. So we just..it was odd. We kind of bonded over that. He gave me one of Ring Lardner’s books when I was 15 and I just loved it. Then we would quote Ring Lardner to each other. It was really sweet. Then, when I got little bit older, we started drinking together and that was even better. He was one of those shy Irish guys who doesn’t talk until he’s had a few drinks and then he gets very, y’know…
D: Was he talkative when he drank?
L: Oh yeah. So, that was good. Well, I mean it wasn’t good but it was….we got a lot more comfortable with each other [laughs]. We’d sit around and get drunk. The drinking age in NY was 18, at that time [laughs]. I tell people that now and they don’t believe me.
D: There’s a quote of your father’s by Charles Champlin in which your dad said, “I’ve made close to a hundred films and all but a few are dogs.”
L: Yeah, I read that.
D: Champlin disagreed saying that even if the films were no good, Ryan was always watchable. Did your father have that sense about his body of work not being very good or was he just being humble?
L: Um, I think he was…I think he felt bad that he didn’t get better parts. I think he felt like that he would have liked to have had a more high profile career. He felt like he wasn’t…he was doing well. He was working but those kind of bigger, more glamorous roles, he would have liked to have had some of those.
D: Any specific that he wanted that he was disappointed in ot getting?
L: Oh yeah. I think that it was irritating to him that Gregory Peck got to play Captain Ahab [laughs].
D: Oh yeah! Peck tried but he was miscast. Your father would have been perfect!
L: Yeah, my father was also a Melville fanatic, especially Moby Dick.
D: You can tell by his performance as Claggart in Billy Budd. If it’s any conciliation, Lee Marvin was always disappointed that your father played that part. Marvin was in the Broadway production in a small role and he loved the part of Claggart, who played evil personified. He wanted that part desperately.
L: He would have been great, too!
D: Absolutely. Your father did things with that character that I don’t even think Lee would have been able to pull off. Smiles before he dies…
L: Oh yes! That movie…there are a few of his movies that really, really get me and that’s one of them. That really is heartbreaking the way he does that, exploiting the vulnerability…Oh!
D: Seals Billy’s fate. So, you can take conciliation in the fact that he may note have gotten Ahab but he got to play Claggart and Lee wanted to play that. Around that time is when Lee was doing The Twilight Zone.
L: Interesting. I think that was actually around the time my dad’s career…I don’t think anyone’s career was doing that great, the late 50s early 60s…
D: Yeah, because of TV and Hollywood was afraid TV would eat up the film industry.
L: Yeah, I guess that’s why my family moved to New York which I was glad we did.
D: Your father did some great stage work then, like the revival of “The Front Page” in the 60s..
L: Oh yeah, that was great.. He played Burns, Walter Burns.
D [laughs]: I can so see him doing that, barking into one of those candlestick telephones.. L: Oh yeah! I wish someone had filmed that. Apparently, there’s a recording of it..
D: He clearly had an affinity for classic theatre, like Iceman Cometh. Jeff Bridges told me that your father and Lee Marvin are the reasons he decided to become an actor.
L: I didn’t know that but like hearing it.
D: Your dad was great in noir but also EVERYTHING he did, including The Love Machine..
L: That was his WORST. I never saw that. I didn’t want to. I remember he was bitter about that. He was bitter also about that Captain Nemo movie [laughs].
D: Did your father say if he had a favorite performance? Possibly Billy Budd?
L: Yeah, he loved Billy Budd. I think….hmm…
D: The Wild Bunch?
L: He didn’t understand how great…A lot of those movies, he didn’t understand how cool they were. He just thought The Wild Bunch was just another western. When it came out and was pretty successful, he just couldn’t understand why [both laugh], ‘Yeah, whatever.’ D: That movie was great for a bunch of reason not the least of which is that the casting had old Hollywood meeting new Hollywood[…]. Lee Marvin wanted to make it but made Paint Your Wagon instead.
L: Oh , Jesus. Lee Marvin should have been in that. Paint Your Wagon? Oh, god almighty… [both laugh] Do you know Alan Rode?
D: Yes I do.
L: He and I went to this big event for the 40th anniversary of The Wild Bunch [laughs], I came all the way down to L.A. for it with Rode and he and I stood in the rain for hours. I thought it funny since we were in line with drunk guys celebrating the film as well. Let me just say I’m glad my father didn’t live long enough to be on The Love Boat because Dana Andrews was. Well, my mother only lasted to age 57 so I was kind of nervous when I tuned 57. Now, my dad was 63 so..or was he 60? I don’t know when…
D: I heard a story that the day your father found out he had cancer, your mom found out she did, too. Is that true?
L: No, that’s not… No, that’s fine. They died within a year of each other but I think that she..he actually had gotten a diagnosis like a few years, maybe five years before he died. He had radiation treatments. It was really odd because we kind of, he really was doing okay and it was almost like we forgot that he was sick. Then, my mother was very suddenly diagnosed with liver cancer and went really fast. I guess that’s one of those cancers by the time they find it, it’s usually too late to do anything. She, it was very sudden and like two months later she was dead. Oh my god. That kind of killed my father, in a way.
D: I take your parents had a very happy marriage, then?
L: Yeah, I think they did. They stayed together. I mean they seemed to be really, really good friends. They would stay up late into the night talking. That was after they had been married 25 years. That seems pretty good to me [laughs].
D: Yeah, that’s very cool. I love hearing stories like that. Do you remember anything your father may have said about Lee other than when you were watching The Twilight Zone?
L: Um, unfortunately not. He did say, he would just laugh about what a character he was. He would use that word. Unfortunately, that’s all I remember. He would use that word and he would laugh: “Lee, what a character.”
– Dwayne Epstein