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His discovery of acting was by accident, but he fell in love with it and studied Shakespeare as his "formal" education.
Ireland made his screen-debut as Private Windy, the thoughtful letter-writing GI, in the 1945 war film A Walk in the Sun. A supporting actor in several notable Westerns including John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946) and Howard Hawks' 1948 film Red River. (1947), Ireland was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his forceful performance as Jack Burden, the hard-boiled newspaper reporter who evolves from devotee to cynical denouncer of demagogue Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) in All the King's Men (1949), making him the first Vancouver-born actor to receive an Academy Award nomination.During Mc Carthyism in the early 50s, he successfully sued two television producers for breach of contract and slander, claiming that they reneged on roles promised to him due to his perceived political undesirability.From 1960–1962, he starred in the British television series The Cheaters, playing John Hunter, a claims investigator for an insurance company who tracked down cases of fraud.By the mid-1960s, he was seen as the star of B-movies such as I Saw What You Did, In 1965, he played role of Jed Colby, a trail scout in Rawhide on American television. In 1967, he appeared on Bonanza with Michael Landon in the episode "Judgement at Red Creek".In a dispute over a wedding held on the Enterprise, a lynch-mob led by Fowler comes after series lead-character Grey Holden (Darren Mc Gavin). In 1960, Ireland starred as Winch in the CBS western series, Rawhide episode "Incident of the Garden of Eden".
In 1962, he portrayed the character Frank Trask in the episode "Incident of the Portrait" on CBS's Rawhide.