Obituary: Barry Sullivan
Saturday 11 June 1994
BARRY SULLIVAN redefined the term 'leading man', being neither a genuine star, although billed above the title, nor a character actor, since he was seldom called upon to play anyone but himself - nice and reliable, the old standby. There were many others of his generation competing for the same roles - Wendell Corey, with his somewhat charming gloom, the cynical but easygoing Van Heflin, the acquiescent but dangerous Robert Ryan.
Many cinemagoers found the Sullivans and Ryans more rewarding than the bona fide box-office champs but, like them, they could be counted upon when it came to facing up to the great ladies of the screen. Ryan, Corey and Heflin all gave Barbara Stanwyck a run for her money, but Sullivan did no more than hold his own with her. When he threatens her in The Maverick Queen (1956) she taunts him, 'I did what I had to do to get to the top,' and he's soon eating out of her hand, the two of them confronting Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Married to her in Jeopardy (1953), he spends the film trapped under a derelict jetty as the tide rises, while she grapples with some weirdos who would rather occupy themselves menacing her than going to his aid.
When faced with Stanwyck's two contemporaries who also specialised in playing strong, rampaging women - Bette Davis and Joan Crawford - Sullivan stood his ground. Lesser men would have buckled under. Sullivan's first real starring role was as a corporation attorney, the husband trying to dump Davis in Payment on Demand (1951): she fights back, but even before she realises that it is all her doing we know he is never going to win. Married to Crawford ('Any man's my man because I want him to be') in Queen Bee (1955), he is not the only member of the cast who wants to murder her; but her death at the end is not entirely his fault.
Sullivan was the husband of the equally splendiferous Loretta Young in Cause for Alarm (1950), his strongest study in villainy, so insanely jealous of her that he sets her up for a murder rap; and he was an ambitious Hollywood director, wanting to make Lana Turner's next movie, in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952).
There were quieter times: psychoanalysing Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark (1944), his third feature after seven years of supporting roles on the Broadway stage; engaged to his factory-owner boss, played by Young, in And Now Tomorrow; engaged again in a remake of the old farce Getting Gertie's Garter (1945), this time to Marie McDonald, who wants that eponymous article back before he finds out about it; The Great Gatsby (1949), probably the best (the first is lost) of the three film versions, as Tom Buchanan, Daisy's husband; and A Life of her Own (1950), as a playboy ill-treating Ann Dvorak, the pathetic friend of the heroine, played by Turner.
This last was made for MGM, to whom Sullivan had moved after five years with Paramount; but MGM weren't quite certain what to do with him either. The Three Guys Named Mike (1951) were Van Johnson, Howard Keel and Sullivan, all competing for Jane Wyman. Although it is Keel's film by sheer dint of personality, it is obvious that Johnson will get Wyman. Sullivan, as an advertising executive, got nowhere with the film or the girl, but MGM looked more kindly upon him after watching him trade insults with Davis in Payment on Demand, on loan to RKO. He returned to RKO to support another of the screen's great ladies, Claudette Colbert, in Texas Lady (1955) - and support in every sense, as fellow-gambler, lover and henchman. Westerns then were one of the last refuges of fading stars, and Sullivan made several in the late Fifties, including another with Stanwyck, Forty Guns (1957).
Sullivan's debut on television (in 1955) was prestigious, when he and Lloyd Nolan repeated their Broadway performances in the Pulitzer prize-winning The 'Caine' Mutiny Court Martial, adapted by Herman Wouk from his own best- selling novel. He appeared regularly on the small screen, including several series, A Man Called X (1955-56), Harbourmaster (1957), The Tall Man (1960-61) and The Road West (1966). He continued to be seen in movies for the cinema, looking increasingly distinguished, even as most of them were going in the other direction. He invariably played diplomats, politicians or senior officers - always with discretion and candour, but often with too little screen time to make his presence felt. One exception was Earthquake (1974), in which he plays the head of the seismological institute who refuses to believe the warnings of his assistant.
His last considerable movie role was in 1961, with another of the leading female stars of that period, Olivia de Havilland, in The Light in the Piazza. She played the mother of a mentally retarded girl (Yvette Mimieux), whom she was hoping to marry to a wealthy young Italian (George Hamilton). Sullivan played her husband, breezing into the film halfway through, determined that they shouldn't leave their hotel room until they had enjoyed themselves. It was rare for movies to imply that hotel rooms were used for such purposes; and unique to suggest that middle-aged people ever did such things in the first place.
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