You’ve probably watched TV shows Shawn Ryan has written or produced, like “The Chicago Code” and “Lie to Me.” As Rockford’s native son debuts his latest project, find out how his time in Rockford still impacts his writing.
Rockford native Shawn Ryan is one of TV’s most respected executive producers, but he still considers himself a writer. And while non-Hollywood types may not know his name, they’ll likely recognize the TV shows he’s worked on in recent years: “The Chicago Code,” “Lie to Me,” “The Shield,” “The Unit,” “Nash Bridges,” “Angel.” This autumn, on ABC, he’ll debut a new international thriller, “Last Resort,” filmed in Hawaii, starring Andre Braugher and Scott Speedman.
Ryan lives in Los Angeles with his wife, actress Cathy Cahlin Ryan, their two children and a pair of golden retrievers. But for all of his success in California, Ryan remains steadfastly loyal to his hometown of Rockford. That’s because he appreciates the people who shaped his character and helped him to find his niche.
“I think people fall into two camps, those who run away from their childhoods and those who embrace them,” says Ryan. “I had a great childhood. I had great parents and friends, and Rockford was a great place to grow up.”
He’s not shy about showing hometown pride: His Twitter photo is a map of Illinois with a star marking Rockford.
“I guess I developed a bit of an attitude, when every year Money Magazine would name us as one of the worst places in America to live,” Ryan says. “I’d look around and just couldn’t understand that. Now, I didn’t grow up in any of the other places, so maybe they were different, but I loved the people in Rockford and I loved being a kid there. I felt like every opportunity I wanted was given to me there.”
Ryan was born in Rockford in 1966, to Jim and Diane Ryan; his brother Jason came along four years later. Growing up in the 1970s, both boys loved sports and were competitive.
“They’re very close today,” Diane says of her sons. “This is amazing, because being four years younger, Jason could never win. Everything was a contest. ‘I bet I can eat my cereal faster than you.’ Everything,” she laughs. Today, Diane lives in California, as does Jason, who works in the video game industry.
Neither of Ryan’s parents – who divorced about the time he graduated from college but remain friendly – can recall anything in his childhood that even hinted that he might become one of the biggest creative forces in television today.
“No, nothing at all,” deadpans Jack. “When he was a kid, he started playing hockey for the Rockford Hockey Club, then he got into soccer when he was probably in middle school.” Mulling it over, Jack adds, “I think being a good athlete brings out some of the skills he uses today. His mom and I tried to make sure he was always focused on whatever he was doing, and that whatever he tried, he did a good job at. We supported him in whatever he did.”
Both boys loved soccer so much that Jack, a CPA, and Diane, a teacher, opened the area’s first specialty soccer store, Corner Kick Soccer, near Five Points in Rockford.
“We started it when the kids were playing soccer because there wasn’t anything in town like it,” Jack says.
Working there weekends and summers was the first job the Ryan boys had. It’s little wonder that Bishop’s Buffet was Ryan’s favorite restaurant at the time. “It was near where our store was,” he says. “I loved going there as a kid.”
When he wasn’t attending classes at Keith Country Day School, a small private school in Rockford, or working at the store, Ryan and his brother were busy with extracurricular activities, which his mom says kept them out of trouble.
“I liked to hang out on the soccer fields a lot, so it was a big deal for me when Sportscore opened and I got to start playing there,” Ryan recalls. Living on Perryville Road, Ryan could see from his bedroom window CherryVale Mall, constructed shortly after they moved into that house.
“A lot of my favorite memories are riding my bike from our house to the movie theaters at CherryVale. I remember going to see Star Wars there, and Raiders of the Lost Ark and War Games. That was sort of a big deal for me.”
The family enjoyed county fairs. More often than not, they went to the Boone County Fair, because it was closer to their home than the Winnebago Fairgrounds. “I liked going to the county fairs, but also going to Chicago to see the Cubs or Blackhawks play,” he says.
Seeing Cheap Trick perform at the brand-new MetroCentre was also memorable for Ryan.
“You have to remember that, when I was at Keith, 50 yards away from the school lived Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick,” Ryan says. “Occasionally, he would pop over to the school, and at that time – late ’70s, early ’80s – they were literally one of the biggest bands in the world. People think it’s funny that it was oddly inspirational to me that someone as artistically successful as Cheap Trick was from Rockford and still lived there. Although I chose to go into television writing, which is not rock ‘n’ roll, there was always the sense that it was possible – because of them.”
Managing rigorous classwork while participating in so many activities wasn’t always easy, but it was important to the family.
“I think there was quite a balance,” Diane says. “We really supported his soccer, his hockey. He even played basketball at Keith. I can’t really say, ‘Oh, we did this for him.’ It was just part of our life – the sports, the dogs and camping. We just did a lot of things.”
The Theater Bug
You might think Ryan’s love of theater came from his mom, who taught theater in the Rockford Public School System’s gifted program, but she would disagree. “I really think Ginny and Rod [MacDonald] played a bigger part,” she says.
Ginny taught theater at Keith, while husband Rod mentored the Ryan boys at New American Theatre. “I taught theater after the boys got into it,” Diane adds. “So if anything, Shawn’s time at New American Theatre [NAT], working with Rod and Ginny, gave him that doorway into theater.”
At Keith, Ryan appeared in plays and even a musical or two. He participated in NAT’s youth program, and in 1981 was cast in its production of On Golden Pond, opposite the MacDonalds.
Ryan’s dad, Jack, who still lives in Rockford, recalls: “What’s funny is that when they were looking for somebody for that part, Rod asked his wife if there were any kids at her school who could do it, adding that he needed to look Irish. Ginny said, ‘His name is Shawn Patrick Ryan.’”
J.R. Sullivan, founder of NAT, directed the play, and remembers auditioning Ryan. “Ginny was right,” he says. “He was a solid young actor with a fine grasp of the essential qualities of the character, the young son of a divorced mother and the grandchild of the MacDonalds’ characters, Ethel and Norman Thayer.”
Currently the artistic director at The Pearl Theatre Company in Manhattan, Sullivan still remembers how well the teenager held the stage alongside the experienced actors in that production of On Golden Pond.
“They were magnificent actors, and together, in this play, they were unforgettable,” Sullivan says. “But Shawn nailed his role, to be sure; got all his laughs, and was a terrific addition to a company of solid pros.”
Ryan points out that together and individually, the MacDonalds mentored an entire generation of students – Rod as theater teacher at Boylan Catholic High School, and Ginny at Keith.
“Those two people really had a big impact on a lot of high school kids,” Ryan says. “There was a kid a few years ahead of me in high school, Matt Lenz, who became an actor on Broadway. And then there’s this group of kids who went to Boylan [who’ve had similar success],” Ryan says. “I don’t know how much of it was the town and how much of it was this husband and wife team that really instilled a love of theater into kids of that era – or a combination of both.”
Diane says Rod even helped Ryan land a few local commercials. “I remember that for one, he had to have his arm put in a cast – I think it was for an insurance company,” she says.
Despite Ryan’s interest in acting and theater, his ultimate career choice surprised his family. “We never imagined he would go that route in college,” Diane recalls.
Rockford to Hollywood – By Way of Vermont
While at Keith, Ryan’s parents gave him the option of going to a larger school, so he spent a day each at various area high schools, including one with a gifted program.
“After visiting the schools, he came home and said, ‘Dad, I had this stuff two years ago,’” Jack recalls.
“He chose to stay at Keith,” Diane says. “We let him make that decision. He liked that they weren’t just receivers of information, they were challenged to think and debate and grow. I know as a public school teacher that can happen in public schools, too, but in a small private school that’s the expectation of the teachers. Fabulous things go on in public schools, but Keith was just right for him. He would have been OK anywhere, but he liked the small class size and the rapport with his teachers.”
Today, Ryan reflects on his years at Keith, which he says provided him with a social education as well as an academic one. He was there for middle school and high school, but attended a Rockford public elementary school.
“What I find interesting is there were no cliques,” Ryan says. “You had to get along with everyone, no matter how different they were from you. In retrospect, I think that was a great thing for me, because at bigger schools, people tend to hang out with people like themselves, so I had to adjust to a wide array of personalities – very much like I do in show running.”
Because he flourished at such a small school – there were just 13 students in his graduating class – it made sense when Ryan chose to attend Middlebury College, a small, private liberal arts college in central Vermont. Having inherited his father’s math skills, he majored in economics.
“When he went to college, I said, ‘You’ve got four years to get out of college – we’re not making this a five- or six-year program,’” Jack recalls. “He called one day, I think it was in his junior year, and said, ‘I’m switching majors.’ I said, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me. What are you going to switch to?’ He said theater and I about fell over – I thought he’d be living in my basement until he was 40. But he said, ‘I only need one more class to finish my economics degree, so next year it will all be theater, and I’ll have two degrees.’ I reluctantly said it was a good choice.”
Turns out, it was.
“In college, I took a bunch of theater classes, which got me into playwriting, which got me into writing for television,” Ryan says. He doesn’t mention that he won a major playwriting award from The Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival.
“That took him to the Shenandoah Playwrights Retreat for a summer, and that took him to Hollywood,” Diane says.
Jack adds: “When he told me he was going to Hollywood for a couple of weeks, I said, ‘That’s cool, but you really can’t afford to go out to Hollywood for a couple of weeks.’ He said, ‘Dad, they’re paying me five grand a week.’ I said, ‘Have a good trip!’”
Ryan decided to stay in Los Angeles and try his luck at scriptwriting. He wasn’t exactly an overnight success, so he employed his math skills and supported himself as a math tutor.
“Eventually, he landed a staff job with “Nash Bridges,” and he’s been working steadily ever since,” says his dad.
From “Nash Bridges,” Ryan went to work on Joss Whedon’s “Angel,” starring David Boreanaz, a spin-off of the cult series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” But his breakthrough moment came as the creator of “The Shield,” the groundbreaking series that established FX as the home of searing original dramas. That series, which aired from 2002 to 2008, still ranks on the lists of many TV critics as one of the best police dramas of all time.
Emmy nominations and critical praise for “The Shield” earned Ryan instant acclaim and solidified his reputation as a smart, talented writer. In 2006, prolific playwright David Mamet was looking for someone to share executive producer duties with him for “The Unit,” and handpicked Ryan for the honor.
“Growing up, you could say David Mamet was Shawn’s idol,” says Diane. “He loved Mamet’s work. ‘The Unit’ was David’s show, and he wanted Shawn as a co-executive producer. Shawn loved doing that.”
Her son’s success hasn’t gone to his head, though. “He doesn’t brag,” Diane says. “He’s so low key. In fact, very often his brother or I will find something online about him that he hasn’t told us. ‘So, Shawn, you have a new show?’ ‘Oh, yeah.’”
Ryan’s parents admire that he’s maintained his Midwestern values and earned a reputation as a good, honest, dependable man who is loyal to his family, friends and employees.
“One of the times we were proudest of him was during the [2007-2008] writers’ strike, because he was the first of the producers to go out and walk the line with his writers,” Diane says. “Only after that did Shonda Rhimes [executive producer, “Grey’s Anatomy”] and Marc Cherry [executive producer, “Desperate Housewives”] and those bigger names join in. And that was a costly thing for him to do.”
The price Ryan paid was missing out on shooting the final episodes of “The Shield.” “That was a huge deal for him – huge,” Diane says. “But he was a struggling writer once, and he never forgot that, and he believed the writers were right. For him to do that – my gosh, that made us prouder of him than any of his writing achievements, because it showed what kind of man he is.”
Because he had written the final episode prior to the strike, Ryan still managed to squeeze in a memorable Rockford reference, when he had the main character’s ex-wife (played by Ryan’s real-life wife, Cathy) and kids being relocated to a new town. The U.S. Marshall accompanying them sells them on the unnamed town’s many attributes, including Burpee Museum.
Ryan enjoys throwing the occasional Rockford reference into his shows, and admits he was a little disappointed when one was cut from the pilot episode of his new ABC series, “Last Resort,” which he co-created and co-wrote with Karl Gajdusek.
The opening episode of the international thriller focuses on a U.S. ballistic submarine. Its captain, played by Andre Braugher, and his second-in-command, played by Scott Speedman, both defy an order to fire nuclear weapons on Pakistan. Fallout from their refusal to fire makes the news.
“We had a news graphic with the captain’s bio, and put that he was born in Rockford,” Ryan says. “We had to cut it out, but Andre and I still agree he’s from Rockford, so that may get mentioned at some point.”
Ryan describes his highly anticipated new series as “part Tom Clancy and part Three Days of the Condor.” The premise, he says, lets the writers explore many of the big issues currently being hashed out across the country.
“Rockford’s a great example of a town that’s historically been kind of divided – Democratic, Republican – and the show allows us to talk about various segments of the American public, whether they be on the Tea Party side or the Occupy Now side,” he says. “There are a lot of voices in the country that are kind of dissatisfied and think they can do things better. This show investigates the idea of a group of people being offered the opportunity to do it differently. What can you do in that kind of situation?”
He’s quick to point out that the show won’t come across like a civics lesson. “I think it’s a very entertaining show that gets to touch on some really big subjects and really big, deep feelings.”
His experience last year with “The Chicago Code” – which was admired by critics but failed to draw enough viewers to get a second season on FOX – has Ryan cautiously optimistic about “Last Resort.”
“You never really know until it gets on the air whether it will click with people, but I’m really, really proud of the show,” he says.
Ryan’s success goes beyond the characters and shows he’s created. Some of the writers he hired and mentored on “The Shield” have gone on to head up some of the most critically acclaimed series in recent years. Kurt Sutter created “Sons of Anarchy,” and Glen Mazzara is executive producer of “The Walking Dead.”
In his own way, Ryan is carrying on the MacDonalds’ tradition of nurturing talent and helping others to find their own paths to success.
Editor’s note: Paula Hendrickson, Rockford, Ill., writes for several national magazines and is a regular contributor to Emmy and Variety magazines. Find her on Twitter @P_Hendrickson.