Saturday, March 5, 2022

Mitchell Ryan 1934-2022

Mitch Ryan has died. 

Normally we use euphemisms for these sorts of things. “We lost so and so.” Or, “such and such went too soon,” as if there is some more appropriate time.  But of all of the Dark Shadows cast members, none projected honest and uncompromising integrity like Mitch Ryan. It feels fundamentally disrespectful to dress it up with something other than a plain and honest fact when referring to his death.  The word is as straightforward as the character he played. And as pained.

Burke Devlin was the show’s first “troubled hero.” We absolutely wanted to get behind him, but his extremity held us back. And besides, we’re sort of trying to root for the Collins family. But there he is. Episode after episode. He’s there for Vicki. He’s there for David. He’s there for us. He was a menace. He was a friend. And in every phase, he was believable.

I can think of few other actors who could project that kind of tortured ambiguity.  It was a human mystery, and it compelled Victoria’s imagination as much as any ghost or phantom parent. He welcomed us to Collinsport in every sense, and alongside the writers, Mitch Ryan set the Escherseque moral landscape that defined the series and drove it forward. 

Mitch Ryan and Jonathan Frid shared the same, most important quality. In their performances, they were able to embody two diametrically opposed states of mind without creating a contradiction. The fascination generated by that strange and unique ability compelled viewers to keep watching, unable to guess where those men might ultimately go.

Ryan was no stranger to conflict. His exit from the show was driven by a poignant battle with alcoholism, and the evidence becomes increasingly obvious as his time on the series goes on. The struggle led to a break from acting. For most, that break would be a permanent one. It is to Ryan’s credit that he took the recovery process seriously and rebuilt his career within a few years. Soon, he was co-starring in the Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force, almost nabbed the role of Picard, essayed the villain in Lethal Weapon, took a memorable and recurring role on the hit series, Dharma and Greg, and played a pivotal part in the Halloween franchise. 

Easing into retirement, Ryan found continued opportunities to explore art in painting and writing, publishing his autobiography quite recently. He revived the Burke Devlin character for Big Finish Audio and framed the recent Dark Shadows rep production of A Christmas Carol with a fine narration of alternating warmth and gravitas.

I interviewed him on Christmas day seven years ago and found him to be exactly as warm and accessible as you would imagine.  He was a fellow Louisville native, having grown up just a few blocks from where I grew up, myself. We are a strange and unique breed, in the company of Tod Browning, Muhammad Ali, and Hunter S Thompson. Mitch Ryan was a fine addition to the list. A Korean war veteran, he began his career on the stage at the Barter Theater and remained loyal to live performance, even appearing in A Long Day’s Journey into Night at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1993 with fellow Dark Shadows alum, Alan Feinstein. He was a lifetime member of the Actors Studio, appearing in Wait Until Dark and The Price on Broadway. Smoothly transitioning to film, his judgment and leadership won him the presidency of the Screen Actors Guild Foundation.

Few performers have rebuilt their careers with such dignity and range. It would be a cliché to point out that his self-generated revival made him somewhat of a phoenix, but considering that he battled a Phoenix on the program, we’d be remiss not to make a note of it. He built the very definition of a worthy life, and that’s exactly the kind of personal character necessary to give Collinwood its true foundation. He welcomed Vicki and the viewers to the beginning and the end of the world.  Thanks to his work, though, that salutation may always be in the wrong order.  

Patrick McCray

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...