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|The O.C. character|
Benjamin McKenzie as Ryan Atwood
|Last appearance||"The End's Not Near, It's Here"
|Created by||Josh Schwartz|
|Portrayed by||Benjamin McKenzie|
|Full name||Ryan Francis Atwood|
|Nickname(s)||Chino (by Luke)
Atwood (by Summer)
Kid (by Sandy)
Ry (by Trey)
High school student
(at the Harbor School; graduated)
(at UC Berkeley; graduated)
|Family||Francis "Frank" Atwood
Sanford "Sandy" Cohen
(biological older brother)
Sophie Rose Cohen
(adoptive paternal grandmother)
Caleb and Rose Nichol
(adoptive grandparents; deceased)
(adoptive maternal aunt)
(adoptive maternal half-aunt)
|Significant other(s)||Theresa Diaz
(ex-girlfriend, first love, deceased)
(sister-in-law, via Seth)
|Residence||Newport Beach, California
Ryan Francis Atwood is a fictional character on the FOX television series The O.C., portrayed by Benjamin McKenzie. A troubled teenager from Chino, California, he is considered the protagonist of the show, an outcast who is given a second chance when the wealthy Cohen family takes him in.
Concept and creation
|"When Benjamin [McKenzie] came in, he wasn't physically what Josh [Schwartz] had envisioned, but he inhabited the character unlike anyone we had seen. I think that the character of Ryan is a kid that always seems a little lost and has a sense of mystery and danger; Benjamin has all those qualities."|
|— Patrick Rush on the casting of Benjamin McKenzie as Ryan|
Casting director Patrick Rush found the role of Ryan Atwood particularly hard to cast for The O.C.. Chad Michael Murray turned the role down to play Lucas Scott on One Tree Hill. Rush invited Benjamin McKenzie to audition after Warner Bros. made him aware of the young actor after an unsuccessful audition for a UPN sitcom. McKenzie, who had spent two years in New York and Los Angeles seeking acting work, lacked experience and later described his selection as "a tremendous leap of faith" on the producers' part. Show creator Josh Schwartz said in 2014, "[McKenzie] took it really seriously, and brought just a lot of integrity, and integrity is not always required in a Fox teen drama."
Ryan was physically abused by his biological father Frank and some of his mother Dawn's boyfriends. He has a complicated, love-hate relationship with his older brother Trey. Both parents struggled with alcohol – Frank became physically abusive while Dawn neglected and verbally abused him – and it left a deep impression on him, as shown by his aversion to strong alcoholic drinks. By his own statements, Ryan never had a father figure for much of his life, due to Frank being in prison and his mother's revolving door of boyfriends, prior to being adopted by the Cohens. The Atwoods used to live in Fresno but moved to Chino after Frank was imprisoned. In season 4, it is stated that Ryan had not seen Frank in eight years. In regards to his biological family, a major recurring theme was Ryan being abandoned – Dawn abandoned him twice, Trey left for Las Vegas without telling him and their dad left them and their mom "with nothing" after being imprisoned – which contrasts his adopted family, the Cohens, who have stood by him despite his juvenile record, vocal criticisms and disdain from the other "Newpsies" about his adoption and his multiple attempts to run away from them. Although he does not address Sandy and Kirsten as Dad or Mom, he has made it clear that he considers them to be his parents, rather than Frank and Dawn.
He generally dislikes speaking about his biological family and has hinted during Christmas and Thanksgiving that the holidays brought up painful memories for him. During his first Chrismukkah in Newport, he tells the Cohens that his holidays mainly consisted of him "getting [his] ass kicked" and sums up his Christmas memories in three words: drinking, crying and cops.
Born and raised in a working class family, Ryan knows the lifestyle and attitudes of people from his neighborhood of Chino, California and the dangers that occur if outsiders are influenced by its environment. His abusive past is reflected by the fact that he has an extremely high pain threshold and displays an impassive expression after being physically beat up. He is tough, cynical and quick-tempered, yet compassionate and empathetic toward people in trouble and those less fortunate than himself. During his first months in Newport, he had the tendency to physically express his anger at the incessant teasing from his schoolmates by punching them, which led them intentionally goad him even more, but he gradually calmed down, after some serious lecturing from Sandy and being sent to anger management counseling. He at times appears burdened by an almost-compulsive need to rescue others at the expense of his own well-being, however, and is overly protective of Marissa and Theresa, his main love interests on the show. The product of an abusive household, he has difficulty trusting or getting close to people emotionally, which could also be due to the fact that his mother Dawn refused to get help for her alcoholism and brother Trey continuously broke his promises to stay out of trouble. He is extremely loyal to his family, both biological and adopted, and those he cares about. The fact that he rarely smiles or says much is something of a running joke among other members of the Cohen household; early in the first season when he first moves in with the Cohens, he often looks down and avoids making eye contact, likely a habit of self-preservation born out of his upbringing in an unstable home and would stiffen when hugged; by the final season, he becomes more open to his adoptive family. Despite his reticent nature and emotionless exterior, Ryan can be quite transparent, often "convey[ing] everything with just a look", and is virtually incapable of lying, as Sandy proved in the episode "The O.Sea" when he caught Ryan trying to cover-up for Seth and Ryan's "guilty face" gave it away.
Compared to his adoptive brother, Ryan is the opposite of the socially awkward, sheltered and sometimes naïve Seth; he is street-savvy, which often results in him having to constantly bail Seth out of trouble during the first two seasons, athletic and charismatic, albeit in a more understated way. Seth often joked about he had known Summer and Marissa since they were in elementary but they never talked to one another while Ryan was invited to the annual charity fashion by Marissa barely twenty four hours after setting foot in Newport Beach. Inside the classroom, he has been described as highly intelligent despite his history of behavior problems (he was suspended multiple times for fighting and truancy). In the pilot episode, it is revealed that he had taken his SATs despite being only a sophomore and scored in the 98th percentile. According to Dawn, Ryan had always been "the smart one, the good one" in the family.
Ryan's favorite fruit is peaches, and his favorite band is Journey. He suffers from acrophobia, the fear of heights. He is athletic and played football (safety) and soccer (striker) in school; a soccer ball is sometimes seen in the Cohen's pool house. Despite the generosity of his adoptive family, Ryan repeatedly demonstrates he can earn his own keep by taking paying jobs around town, such as a busboy at the Crab Shack, a construction worker, an intern at the Newport Group, and a barback position. He used to smoke, like both Frank and Dawn, but stopped after Sandy tells him on the first night that smoking wasn't allowed in the house.
Of the characters in the show, Ryan is closest to his adoptive brother Seth, Summer and Marissa – this "core four" group of friends is the basis of Seth's Atomic County comic series. Ryan and Seth are often able to finish each other's sentences, according to Summer, "like they're composing a lie on the spot" and read each other's body language and facial expressions.
When Ryan and his brother Trey are caught attempting to steal a car, his mother Dawn kicks him out. His attorney, Sandy Cohen, takes him into his home in Newport Beach, California, despite objections from Sandy's wife, Kirsten. Sandy takes note of Ryan's high test scores in spite of his poor grades, which was more likely due to inconsistent attendance rather than Ryan's lack of intelligence. Initially Kirsten is wary of him and insisted Sandy take him back to juvie but, after witnessing him being physically assaulted in juvie for defending her from an unruly inmate, she takes him home. She subsequently welcomes him to stay permanently upon seeing that Dawn was incapable of adequately caring for Ryan due to her alcohol problem. In the episode "The Debut", Sandy and Kirsten become his legal guardians, after Dawn leaves him at the Cohens' in the previous episode. Ryan becomes part of the Cohen family, living in their pool house, and becomes a brother to Sandy and Kirsten's son, Seth Cohen; even Sandy and Kirsten consider him their second son, referring to him as such rather than the more legally accurate term "ward". However, even though he is accepted by the immediate Cohen family, he still feels like and is seen by other characters as an outsider, a recurring theme throughout the season. In particular, Harbor School dean Dr. Kim, water polo team captain Luke Ward, Kirsten's father Caleb Nichol and the Cohens' neighbor Julie Cooper had reservations about Ryan. Shortly after meeting her, he begins a relationship with Marissa Cooper, Julie's daughter.
Initially Ryan has trouble fitting in at Harbor School, the local private school most "Newpsies" attend. He joins the soccer team, only to find that Luke was also on the team. The fact that Luke, his rival for Marissa's affections and the water polo team captain, was there exacerbated the problem. Ryan takes it out on Luke with a rash tackle during soccer practice, earning him a suspension and a stern reminder from Sandy that they (the Cohens) were "always one mistake away from someone taking you from us". He and Luke become friends in the aftermath of the discovery that Luke's father was gay and is the first person Luke vents his frustration and anger to. Luke becomes unlikely friends with Ryan and his circle of "outcasts": Marissa, who was ostracized by other girls following her parents' divorce and suicide attempt, and the socially awkward Seth, whom he and other jocks used to bully.
Ryan's relationship with Marissa is interrupted by Oliver Trask, a deeply disturbed boy Marissa meets in therapy who becomes obsessed with her. Ryan becomes suspicious, which brings significant trust issues between the couple, eventually resulting in a breakup, although they remain friends.
At the same time, Theresa Diaz, Ryan's childhood sweetheart, comes to Newport, resulting in a rekindled romance between them. However, Theresa leaves Newport after her fiancé Eddie, one of Ryan's friends in Chino, convinces her to return to Chino with him. Ryan and Marissa resume their relationship shortly after, but this is complicated when Theresa returns after suffering domestic abuse by Eddie. Theresa reveals she is pregnant but does not know whether the father is Ryan or Eddie. She decides to keep the baby and return home to Chino to be with her mother. Feeling compelled to help her bring up the child, Ryan decides to go with Theresa, leaving Marissa, the Cohens, and everything else in his life behind.
Having quit school and working in construction, Ryan lives with Theresa, but she realizes he is unhappy and encourages him to visit Seth in Portland, Oregon, where he ran away following Ryan's departure. He hesitantly goes, hoping to convince his friend to go home to his parents before the fall semester starts, but while he stays in Portland, Theresa notifies him through the telephone she has miscarried. Although Ryan is devastated and wants to return to her, Theresa tells him he needs to go back to Newport with Seth.
Ryan returns to school and is still uncertain about his plans beyond high school. By chance, he catches Sandy and Kirsten's contractor cutting corners and quickly points out discrepancies in the floor plan and finished product. The school counselor discovers some technical drawings and sketches of the lower floor of the Cohens' home in his notebook and advises him to consider architecture as a career.
As part of Seth's idea of a reunion of the "Fab Four" (consisting of Ryan, Marissa, Seth and his girlfriend Summer Roberts), Ryan and Marissa are pulled closer together. When he overhears Marissa admitting to Summer that Ryan is the only one she ever loved and she misses him every day, he confesses his own lingering feelings for her. The two get back together, just as Ryan's brother Trey is released from jail. Ryan, along with the Cohens and Marissa, attempts to get Trey back onto his feet. However, during his trip to Florida with Sandy and Seth to pay Sandy's mother a visit, Trey tries to rape Marissa while intoxicated on drugs. Marissa does not tell anyone, causing tension with Ryan, who suspects she cheated on him with Trey. After he questions his brother, who hides at a bar in Chino and blames a drunken Marissa, Ryan bumps into Theresa and confides his problems. She tells him that out of the two, Marissa would never hurt him and she would be the one to trust. Following Theresa's advice, Ryan makes up with Marissa.
Meanwhile, Sandy becomes concerned with Kirsten's alcoholism and decides to stage an intervention. Ryan reassures Sandy he is doing the right thing. Ryan takes part, stating that, having lost his mother to alcoholism, he would not be able to bear it if he lost someone else he loved to the bottle. Following similar statements of love from the rest of the Cohens, Kirsten gives in and checks herself into rehab. When Marissa tells Summer about Trey's attempted rape, Summer informs Seth. Seth, knowing he cannot lie to Ryan, tells him, who prompts a confrontation with his brother. The brothers fight, and Trey almost kills Ryan. Marissa turns up and shoots Trey in the back with his own gun.
Trey survives the gunshot but remains in a coma. When he regains consciousness, Marissa's mother Julie blackmails him to place the blame on Ryan so Marissa's innocence will clear her reputation in society, but following Ryan's initial arrest, Marissa convinces him to tell the truth. With Ryan's charges dropped, Trey flees Newport, leaving Marissa expelled from Harbor High to instead attend public school. When she befriends amateur surfer Johnny Harper, Ryan becomes suspicious of their closeness, fueling their on and off relationship. After Johnny dies in an accident, Ryan questions Marissa's true feelings towards Johnny, ending their relationship. Following their split, Marissa begins spiraling down a disastrous relationship with Kevin Volchok, Johnny's former surfing rival, while Ryan develops his own rivalry against Volchok, including instances of blackmail, extortion and violence.
In the season finale, Ryan, Marissa, Seth and Summer graduate from high school, following their prospective futures. Ryan became the first in his family to graduate from high school and is accepted by the University of California, Berkeley, Sandy and Kirsten's alma mater. Volchok attempts to blackmail Ryan, threatening to inform the authorities of Ryan's earlier involvement in a robbery which he was forced to assist him with. In an effort to fulfill Volchok's ransom, Marissa gives Ryan her mother's graduation gift: pearls he can pawn for the money. Volchok doesn't accept the money, demanding more, including a talk with Marissa, which she refuses, instead staying with Ryan. While Ryan drives Marissa to the airport, Volchok, drunk and furious, attempts to crash Ryan's car. In a blind rage, he sideswipes Ryan's vehicle, knocking it over a barrier to roll down an embankment. Ryan manages to pull an unconscious Marissa out of the wreckage before the car exploded due to the leaking gas tank. Marissa dies of her injuries in his arms minutes later.
Following Marissa's death, Ryan moves into a storage closet at a bar where he works while avoiding the Cohens and starts cage fighting, which becomes an outlet for his anger and grief. The Cohens repeatedly call him up to check up on him and ask him to come over for dinner and Sandy even goes to the bar to look for Ryan himself but Ryan continues to elude them on purpose. Meanwhile, a desperate Seth calls Summer, who is away at Brown University in Rhode Island, to come back and hopefully convince Ryan to return home with the Cohens. Sandy, Kirsten and Seth finally convince him to return home after they reveal to him, through Seth's Atomic County comic strips, how he has changed their family for the better. Julie, finding any way necessary to cope with her grief, hires a private investigator to dig up evidence of Volchok's whereabouts, in hopes of exacting her revenge. She passes the information to Ryan, the only person who can truly understand the pain she feels, and suggests he do with Volchok whatever he wishes, as giving the police the information is too valuable a deal to pass up. Ryan heads to Mexico to finish the job, but Seth tags along to ensure Ryan doesn't ruin his life by committing murder. Seth calls Sandy and Kirsten, who have driven to Mexico to find the boys, then warns Volchok to leave town before Ryan gets to him and advises that he take advantage of his lawyer father. His plan fools Ryan, who returns home; his relationship with Seth is severely compromised, however. Heeding Seth's advice, Volchok contacts Sandy to be his defense attorney, although Ryan discovers it. Sandy, knowing Ryan would never kill anyone, drives him to the hotel where he's housed Volchok. Inside, Ryan puts a broken bottle against Volchok's throat; he spares Volchok's life, however, leaving him for the police.
Ryan settles back down to life in Newport, determined to have an uneventful summer, until Taylor Townsend returns from France trapped in a loveless marriage, seeking a divorce. Ryan is reluctantly drawn in and, during a heart-to-heart conversation with Sandy, he is reminded that he's always been the one to help people when they need it the most. Ryan kisses Taylor in front of her husband's lawyer, who can grant a divorce only if one member was unfaithful and agrees that their kiss was heartfelt. Seth warns Ryan that Taylor is unstable and clings to anyone who shows her kindness; while Ryan appreciates the notion, he admits that he is not yet over Marissa and decides to confront Taylor; she initially denies her own feelings but later confesses that she is attracted to him. Following a second kiss, the idea being to discover if it sparks any feelings, he admits he does like her, except that he does not want anything too serious.
During Chrismukkah (a combination of Christmas and Hanukkah celebrated at the Cohen house), Ryan discovers a letter in the mail from Marissa but gets distracted by Kirsten. While he's hanging decorations on the house roof, Taylor arrives with her gift to him; he is preoccupied by Marissa's letter, however, and acts coldly towards her. When she climbs the ladder he's working on to angrily give him his present, the ladder falls, along with the two of them, knocking them both unconscious. While in the hospital, Ryan and Taylor dream of being in an alternate dream universe of Newport, as if Ryan had never been adopted by the Cohen family. When Taylor misunderstands a conversation with a housekeeper from this world, she informs Ryan that Marissa is alive; Ryan says he never wants to wake up so he can be with her again. When he finds out about her arrival at an airport from Berkeley and goes to meet her, he finds this world's version of Marissa's sister Kaitlin, who tells him that Marissa had died of the overdose he had saved her from. In the real world, Kirsten shows Julie Marissa's letter to Ryan, which she had written to Ryan before she left for Greece. In the letter, Marissa states that she had to leave because, even though she still loved him, they could not be together. After Julie sets the note beside an unconscious Ryan, it appears for him to read in his dream, during which he realizes he has to forgive himself for Marissa's death and to move on. Moments later, he regains consciousness. He finally gathers the courage to visit Marissa's grave, where he bumps into Julie, who consoles him with the knowledge that at least Marissa did not die alone. Since her daughter's death, Julie has softened towards Ryan after realizing that he sincerely cared for Marissa.
Days later, Ryan finds out from Sandy that his biological father, Frank Atwood, is out of jail and wishes to see him. Ryan is hesitant, recalling the abuse he suffered at Frank's hands, but Frank convinces him by claiming that he has lung cancer. However, following dinner with the Cohens, an already-suspicious Sandy reveals that Frank lied about the cancer after checking up with his contacts in the prison system. Frank leaves Newport, although he returns apologetically and with help from Taylor forms a tentative relationship with his son. The situation becomes even more awkward when Frank begins dating Julie and stays at her house. They remain on friendly terms but Ryan has made it clear that even though he addresses Frank as "dad", he considers Sandy to be his father figure.
Meanwhile, Taylor's ex-husband Henri-Michel comes to Newport on a book tour for his best-selling novel about their marriage. Feeling insecure about Taylor's exotic life in France, Ryan breaks up with her, claiming they are "too different". A week later, Ryan decides he was wrong but discovers it might be too late as Taylor is already considering a reconciliation with Henri, who still loves her. Ryan upstages a poetry reading by Henri at a book store with a poem of his own, where he confesses he can grow to love Taylor, given time.
To make up for giving a pocket dictionary for her nineteenth birthday, Ryan gives Taylor his original present of a bound book full of love poems that she translated. He admits he loves her, but as they reconcile, an earthquake hits Newport. The two survive, but Ryan is injured while protecting Taylor and is brought to the hospital for recovery. Six months later, Ryan and Taylor spend time together before she leaves Newport for college in Paris. Ryan thanks her for saving him from self-destruction, and he and the Cohens depart from their Newport home, damaged beyond repair, to Sandy and Kirsten's old home in Berkeley, California, while Seth leaves for RISD.
In a flashforward, Ryan attends UC Berkeley, where Sandy is now a law professor. At Seth and Summer's wedding, he is best man and shares a smile with Taylor, the maid of honor (their relationship status is left ambiguous). Ryan achieves his dream of becoming an architect. As he walks away from a construction site, he notices a teenager down on his luck, seemingly in the same situation Ryan was when he was kicked out of his home. As he offers the youth help, Ryan's story comes full circle.
- "Backstage Pass - Production Notes". The OC Insider. Warner Bros. Retrieved 2008-07-27.
- Banks, Andrew (2007-06-12). "Top movie role reversals". News.com.au. News Digital Media. Archived from the original on April 21, 2012. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
- Katner, Ben (2003-08-12). "The 411 on The O.C.'s MVP". TV Guide. Retrieved 2009-01-14.
- Hale, Mike (2014-11-23). "Sometimes, Old-Fashioned Pays Off". The New York Times. pp. AR19. Retrieved 18 January 2015.
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