Mitchell Ryan, Who Played the Villain in ‘Lethal Weapon,’ Dies at 88

Mitchell Ryan, an actor known for his role in the gothic soap opera “Dark Shadows” and who played a heroin-dealing retired general in the action movie “Lethal Weapon,” died at his home in Los Angeles on Friday. He was 88.

The cause was heart failure, Ro Diamond, who represented Mr. Ryan for more than 40 years, said on Saturday.

With his square jawline and slicked-back hair, Mr. Ryan entertained moviegoers and television fans in a career that spanned more than 50 years, beginning with an uncredited part in the movie “Thunder Road” (1958).

His breakout performance came in 1966 when he landed a role in “Dark Shadows,” a popular soap opera about the adventurous lives of the affluent Collins family. Set in the fictional town of Collinsport, Maine, the family experiences supernatural events and are tormented by strange beings, such as ghosts, witches and zombies.

Mr. Ryan played Burke Devlin, an ex-convict who returns to Collinsport and seeks revenge on the family.

“It was a wonderfully written Gothic kind of melodrama and Burke was this marvelous, mysterious character,” Mr. Ryan recalled decades later in an interview. “And actually, there wasn’t a whole lot to do with it except bring a lot of my passion to it and just allow it to come out.”

He was fired from the show because of his alcoholism.

Mr. Ryan, second from left, with Joan Bennett, left, and Louis Edmonds, second from right, in “Dark Shadows” in 1966.Credit…ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content, via Getty Images

He recalled in his memoir, “Fall of a Sparrow,” how grateful he was to have overcome his struggles with sobriety. “I’m blessed that, 30 years a drunk, I’ve managed to live a working actor’s life to be envied,” he wrote.

He added that “sober for the next 30 years, I’m told I’ve come out of it all a good and a useful human being.”

Another major role came in 1987, when he played an antagonist in “Lethal Weapon,” which starred Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. Mr. Ryan recalled in an interview that people involved with the film initially believed it was destined to flop.

“It was a total scary mess for everybody,” he said, noting that the script was constantly being rewritten. “Nobody knew what was going on.”

Mr. Ryan played a retired general-turned-heroin smuggler who delivers commands in a calm and collected cadence but is inclined to raging outbursts.

The film would gross more than $100 million worldwide at the box office.

“We were all absolutely totally shocked and dumbfounded when it turned out to be an enormous hit,” Mr. Ryan said.

He joked that the series of films that followed made everybody richer, except him because his character, Gen. Peter McAllister, was in a vehicle that was struck by a bus. “Poor Mitch, I got killed,” he said.

Mr. Ryan continued to play parts in more than two dozen television series but found that his ego was getting inflated. He wrote on his website that “the more successful I became, the easier it was to take credit for what ‘I’ accomplished.”

Mr. Ryan, left, star of Arthur Miller’s play “The Price,” with Lee Marvin, right, and Mr. Marvin’s wife, Pamela, backstage at the Playhouse Theater in New York in 1979.Credit…Dan Grossi/Associated Press

It was a behavior that he believed would be “deadly in the long run and not in accordance with reality,” he wrote.

Still, in interviews, he would frequently say that he was grateful for his long acting career, which, as a child, seemed unlikely.

Mitchell Ryan was born on Jan. 11, 1934, in Cincinnati and raised in Louisville, Ky., by his mother, who was a writer, and his father, who was a salesman. Information about survivors was not immediately available on Saturday.

He said that, as a boy, he would often invent people he could be one day and had no idea that he was “acting a role, as it was all real to me.”

He served in the U.S. Navy and then pursued work in theater. “I can’t count the number of plays I have done, but it could easily be over one hundred,” he wrote.

For 15 years, he acted in a play almost every night in road shows, on Broadway and Off Broadway. Even while working on “Dark Shadows,” he was still performing plays at night after leaving the television set, which, he said, was “not a very good idea.”

In 1989, he played Anthony Tonell, a brutal businessman, in “Santa Barbara,” a television series about several wealthy families in California. From 1997 to 2002, he portrayed Edward Montgomery, a wealthy and eccentric father, in the sitcom “Dharma & Greg.”

In the preface of his memoir, Mr. Ryan wrote: “A young man became an actor because someone thought he had the right look for a part. A pleasing voice. And he wasn’t doing something else just then.”

“And he stayed an actor,” he added, “because, remarkably, he was good at it.”

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