Barry Sullivan was born Patrick Barry Sullivan on August 29, 1912 in New York City. He was the seventh son of a seventh son, a birth order with mystical significance in Celtic families.
While never a major movie star, he established himself as a well-known and highly regarded character lead and second lead in motion pictures and television in a career that lasted 50 years. Barry Sullivan was one of those elite of actors who are always in demand until the day they decide to retire.
Barry Sullivan was gainfully employed as a theater usher and department store employee when he made his first Broadway appearance in I Want a Policeman at the Lyceum Theatre in January of 1936. Unfortunately, the show lasted only 47 performances. Other plays he appeared in on the Great White Way were the drama St. Helena in October of 1936 and the comedies All That Glitters and Eye On the Sparrow, both in 1936. All three plays were flops.
Sullivan finally appeared in a hit play when he transferred into the role of Bert Jefferson in The Man Who Came to Dinner, by Pulitzer Prize-winners Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. However, the 1941-42 Broadway season brought three more flops: Mr. Big, Ring Around Elizabeth, and Johnny 2 X 4.
Wisely, he stayed away from Broadway for a decade when he again transferred into a hit, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, taking over the role of Barney Greenwald from Henry Fonda. Sullivan was nominated for an Emmy Award in 1955 when he played the role on the Ford Star Jubilee omnibus television program.
His last appearance on Broadway, Too Late the Phalarope in 1956, was, true to his performance record, a flop. Sullivan’s star was fated to shine on the screen, both the silver one found in movie theaters and cathrode-ray tube found in homes.
In the late 1930s, Barry Sullivan gained movie acting experience in two-reel comedies produced by the Manhattan-based Educational Studios. After giving up on his Broadway career, Sullivan appeared in an uncredited bit part in The Green Hornet Strikes Again! (1941) at Universal before making his official film debut in the Chester Morris B-picture High Explosive (1943) at Paramount. He followed this up with the western The Woman of the Town (1943) for United Artists that same year.
Sullivan never became a big star, but he established himself firmly as a character lead and second lead. He excelled at supporting roles in which he could play aggressive characters, though he did not typically play villains. Some chroniclers of American cinema believe he had too much of a rakish personality to crack into the top level of stardom. But he did cut a swathe through motion pictures and television as he was tall (6’3″) and handsome and had a centered masculinity that was balanced with more than a touch of class.
His most notable early roles in the movies were as the eponymous The Gangster (1947) (one of his leads), Tom Buchanan in the 1949 version of The Great Gatsby(1949) (second lead to the nearly a foot shorter Alan Ladd), and the movie director Fred Ameil (modeled after Howard Hawks) in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), a classic Hollywood tale in which he was a central part of a first rate ensemble.
The roles of Tom Buchanan and Fred Ameil could easily have brought him Oscar nominations as Best Supporting Actor in those days when studio politics ruled the Academy Awards.
Sullivan twice was the star of TV series in the late 1950s/early 60s. He was the title character in Harbormaster in 1957-58 and starred as the lawman Pat Garrett in the western The Tall Man in 1960-62.
His acting skills were better used in roles in the dramatic productions that were once a staple of network TV. He gave very fine performances in two prestigious productions of stage plays (when television still provided such entertainment) in the early 1970s: as George C. Scott’s brother in the Emmy Award-winning production of Arthur Miller’s The Price and as the evil Southern patriarch/proto-capitalist in Lillian Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest.
Always in demand, Sullivan continued acting in movies until 1977, rounding off a 40-year movie career with an appearance in Oh, God! (1977). He continued to appear periodically on television until retiring in 1980.
Barry Sullivan was a liberal Democratic activist who was part of the extended Rat Pack centered around Frank Sinatra. When Sinatra had a falling out with President John F. Kennedy after the actor-singer’s Mafia connections made him persona non grata at the White House, Sullivan chose JFK over Old Blue Eyes.
Sullvian was married three times and fathered three children, Johnny and Jenny Sullivan by his first wife, and Patsy Sullivan-Webb by his second wife Gita Hall. A former Miss Stockholm and fashion model/cover girl, Hall co-starred with Sullivan in the 1958 movie Wolf Larsen, in which Sullivan played the lead.
He had a brother who was mentally disabled. Sullivan kept in constant contact with his brother and became an advocate for the rights of the disabled.
The Sullivan talent has run into three generations. Jenny Sullivan became an actress (appearing in the TV mini-series Captains and the Kings) and a playwright, writing the drama J for J” (Journal for John) based on the correspondence between her father and her brother, who was mentally disabled. She was married to the rock star Jim Messina.
Patsy Sullivan-Webb was a successful model who appeared as the face of Yardley Cosmetics in the Swinging ’60s, starting at the age of twelve. She appeared with her father in the episode of That Girl that opened the series’ third season and was a contestant on The Dating Game. She married the accomplished songwriter Jimmy Webb, by whom she had six children. Two of her sons formed the rock group The Webb Brothers.
Barry Sullivan died of a respiratory ailment on June 6, 1994 in Sherman Oaks, California. He was 81 years old.
An earlier version of this biography appeared on the Internet Movie Database