In his nearly 50 year career in films, actor John Ireland was a supporting player, a villain, and a leading man. Though his name might not be as recognizable as some of his contemporaries, his face is well known to the classic movie audience.
John Benjamin Ireland was born in Vancouver, British Columbia to John and Katherine Ireland on January 30, 1914 and his parents moved to the Harlem section of New York when he was still a child. His half-brother was actor Tommy Noonan (best known as Marilyn Monroe's bespectacled boyfriend in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes ). Ireland reportedly got in trouble with the law as a boy and was sent several times to juvenile halls and special summer camps. He entered show business through an unusual route ? as a both a barker and a professional swimmer in The Aqua Carnival in 1935. Within five years, he had left swimming behind and was touring with the Shakespearian Repertory Company. In 1941 he got his first Broadway role, as "First Murderer" in Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson's famed production ofMacbeth. During the next two years, he would appear on Broadway in other plays such as Counter Attack, Doctor's Disagree and A New Life before being signed by 20th Century Fox and leaving for Hollywood.
Ireland's first important film role was playing Billy Clanton in John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946). In 1948 Howard Hawks cast him as Cherry Valance in Red River, opposite John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. Ireland's famous scene in the film where he and Montgomery Clift compare the size of their guns was a Hollywood in-joke. As the men hold out their guns, Ireland tells Clift, "Mine is bigger than yours". It was a reference to Ireland reportedly being well-endowed. During filming, Ireland was having an affair with co-star Joanne Dru and living up to his reputation as both a womanizer and a hell-raiser. It interfered with filming and director Hawks was forced to cut some of Ireland's lines, "I got tired of this actor [John Ireland]'s getting drunk every night, losing his gun and his hat, smoking marijuana, and I just cut the hell out of his scenes and gave them to somebody else. We just couldn't take time from work for this man. One of the worst things for morale when you're making a picture is to stand a guy up in front of a camera. So that's why we cut out his part. He sends me these wires saying, 'You gave me one chance, please give me another, I won't blow it.'"
The following year Ireland began to take his career more seriously when he appeared in Robert Rossen's All the King's Men (1949). As reporter Jack Burden, his character evolves throughout the course of the film from being a supporter of Huey Long-like demagogue Willie Stark, to reviling him. It was a strong performance and it earned Ireland his only Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. His career was at its peak in the 1950s, appearing in several television programs such as Playhouse 90, Studio 57, Climax!, and Lux Video Theater. His film career was extremely active during this period with Ireland appearing in Hurricane Smith(1952), The 49th Man (1953), and Queen Bee (1955) with Joan Crawford. Ireland and Crawford had an affair during shooting, an experience he later recalled in his unpublished autobiography. "We were shooting Queen Bee starring Joan Crawford, on a sound stage at Columbia Studios. The head of the studio was still Harry Cohn (King Cohn, as he was now referred to). The King said an emphatic "no" to me being in the film. [...] [B]ut Joan would have none of it. Quote, "If John Ireland doesn't get the part, I'll take the property elsewhere." End quote. After lunch, shooting moved into high gear. Every scene was done in one take. At 5:30, Joan's husky voice announced that it was "post time." A lovely bucket of ice, holding an even lovelier bottle of the finest Russian vodka (Stolichnaya), made its appearance. We both showed our appreciation. I got to be the "Gunga Din" vodka boy every night at "post time." I carried the bucket of Stolichnaya to the projection room where we watched the dailies (the "dailies" being the film that had been developed from the previous day's work.) We both thought the scenes were very well acted. Joan was extremely excited about the way she was photographed by Charles Lang."
"Happily, we trod back to her dressing room, and happily we terminated the Stolichnaya. Al Steele of the "Pepsi" Steeles [Crawford's husband] was curled up on an oversized sofa, sound asleep. He remained that way, even when we were ready to leave. I asked Joan if we shouldn't wake him for dinner. "F**k him," she said. We're having dinner." Frascati's Restaurant on Sunset Boulevard was one of the nicest, where you could dine in much comfort, and much privacy. I was grateful for both, and for the attention that was lavished, and for the bill that never arrived. The Queen Bee had become a real-life drama, in spite of Al Steele's sometime hazy appearances. Joan and I repeated our dinners at Frascati's, whatever else we repeated, never seemed repetitious; it was always like a first time. She was exotic beyond the meaning of the word. I don't know who Kirk Douglas was talking about in his autobiography, he must have been with the wrong Joan Crawford." Though married three times, including actress Joanne Dru, Ireland was famous in Hollywood for dating much younger women, like Natalie Wood, and Tuesday Weld, who he dated when he was 45 and she was 16. Ireland reportedly said "If there wasn't such a difference in our ages I'd ask her to marry me. That and her mother are the only things that stop me".
In the 1960s, Ireland's film career slowed down. After appearing in Spartacus (1960) and 55 Days at Peking(1963), Ireland, like many actors of his generation, found work in Hollywood becoming scarce by the mid-1960s and he left for Italy where he appeared in many low-budget European films. When he returned to Hollywood in the 1970s, his work was confined to mostly television and low-budget American films, although he worked often in both mediums.
Ireland also found a second career as the owner of "Ireland's", an upscale restaurant in Santa Barbara, California, a few hours from Los Angeles, where he had moved years earlier. John Ireland died of leukemia on March 21, 1992 at the age of 78. He was survived by his two sons from his marriage to Joanne Dru, and his third wife of 30 years, Daphne Cameron Ireland.
by Lorraine LoBianco