Rip Torn: Intense, Disturbing, and Very, Very Funny

Rip Torn on the set of Joseph Strick’s Tropic of Cancer (1970)

Even after an Emmy, two Obie Awards, a nomination for a Tony, another for an Oscar, and a hit television show that had made him well and truly famous, Rip Torn, who passed away on Tuesday at the age of eighty-eight, often argued that his work hadn’t received the recognition it deserved. “Never mind that he is stopped regularly on the street by fellow performers, young and old, who are eager to pay their respects, to shake his hand heartily and to speak of his performances with reverence,” wrote Susan Dominus in a 2006 profile for the New York Times Magazine. Over the previous two years, he’d appeared in eight films, and half a century into a remarkably varied and illustrious career, he was about to take on the role of Louis XV in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. But Dominus found Torn complaining “frequently and bitterly about how hard it is to make a living in the field, describing his career as ‘a scramble for existence.’ Having started out as a fiery actor in his mid-twenties, Torn has replaced his youthful spirit of rebellion with the only slightly more composed indignation of someone who is permanently wounded by the accumulation of slights he feels he has suffered over the decades.”

Born and raised in the Texas hill country, Torn originally intended to become a rancher, but wound up studying acting under the renowned Shakespeare scholar B. Iden Payne. In the mid-1950s, he moved to New York, where he trained under Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. Torn caught the eye of Elia Kazan, who gave him his first minor movie roles, both uncredited, in Baby Doll (1956) and A Face in the Crowd (1957). Kazan also cast Torn in his first two shows on Broadway, both of them plays by Tennessee Williams. Beginning as an understudy, Torn eventually took over the lead in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1956, and three years later, he was playing a supporting part in the original cast of Sweet Bird of Youth.

As Anita Gates writes in the New York Times, Sweet Bird of Youth “was good to him.” Torn eventually took over the top role from Paul Newman, and when Richard Brooks directed an adaptation in 1962, he, Newman, and Geraldine Page all took on the characters they’d played in the original production. When Torn married Page in 1963, they became what Dominus describes as “a glamorous couple in theater circles,” throwing parties attended by the likes of Miles Davis, Judy Garland, and Lena Horne. As Actors Studio board members, they helped younger struggling actors—such as Torn’s cousin, Sissy Spacek—get a foot in the door.

Even as he juggled roles in theater and film, Torn was also appearing frequently on such popular television series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Rawhide, often playing the heavy. “There was just something sinister about Torn, those wicked eyes of his, that crooked-toothed leer, the whole rat-like demeanor, that suited him for villainous roles of all kinds,” suggests Jim Knipfel at the Chiseler. One of Kim Morgan’s favorite performances, though, has Torn paired with Tuesday Weld in an episode of Naked City. “Madly in love, madly in lust, the actors play two recently married, demented hillbillies in heat like ardent caterwauling kitties,” she writes.

As for the movies, it was during this period that Torn “developed his dynamic, loud-mouthed, somewhat sleazy, acting persona,” as Ronald Bergan puts it in the Guardian. Roles during these years included Judas in Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961) and, as Bergan adds, “a sadistic army sergeant in Cornel Wilde’s Beach Red (1967), and the wealthy New Orleans businessman, waiting to get his revenge, in any fashion, on Edward G. Robinson for wiping him out in a high-stakes poker game in Norman Jewison’s The Cincinnati Kid (1965).”

By 1969, Torn was broadening his range, taking a small, uncredited walk-on in Agnès Varda’s Lions Love (. . . and Lies), playing a disturbed and disturbing psychiatrist who secretly films his sexual escapades with a series of women in Milton Moses Ginsberg’s Coming Apart, and falling out with Dennis Hopper, who’d intended to cast him in the role in Easy Rider that eventually went to Jack Nicholson. It’s a long story, and there are many conflicting versions of it, but decades later, it was decided in court that Torn did not pull a knife on Hopper during their heated argument. The following year, he flew to Paris to play Henry Miller in Joseph Strick’s Tropic of Cancer, a film slapped with an X rating that wouldn’t be changed to NC-17 until 1992.

1970 also saw the release of Norman Mailer’s Maidstone, which, in the essay that accompanies our 2012 release, Michael Chaiken calls “one of the most curious, misunderstood, lunatic snapshots of bombed-out late-sixties aphasia ever committed to celluloid.” It also features Torn’s (and Mailer’s) most notorious on-screen moment. Mailer, who plays a filmmaker running for president, had drawn up a plot outline and biographical sketches for each of his characters before gathering everyone for a five-day shoot in East Hampton, New York. In an interview that ran in Filmmakers Newsletter in 1971, Torn told Griselda Steiner that his character, Mailer’s half-brother, was meant to attempt an assassination. To make it seem real, though, neither Mailer nor his character could know when or how. Torn’s attack with a hammer immediately led to an all-out, real-life brawl. At this point in his career, “Torn literally embodied the exploded boundary between fiction and nonfiction, discipline and chaos, creative daring and ill-advised lunacy,” tweets Eric Hynes. “Whether or not the ensuing eras and collaborators were worthy, he kept bringing it.”

Further reaction to Torn’s passing on Twitter reveals that if there’s a sleeper hit in the actor’s oeuvre, it’s his turn as an ill-tempered country singer in Daryl Duke’s 1972 road movie Payday. “Whether bullying his manager, dissing his band, or seducing a groupie, Torn seethes with a fury born of his mean spirit and a gnawing awareness of his mediocrity,” writes the BFI’s David Parkinson, who sees echoes of Payday in Torn’s performance as record producer in Ira Sachs’s Forty Shades of Blue (2005). “Treacherous, temperamental, entitled, and insensitive, Torn is compellingly loathsome,” writes Parkinson. Other notable performances include a womanizing professor who befriends the alien played by David Bowie in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and a sympathetic farmer in Martin Ritt’s Cross Creek (1983), the role that would score Torn his only Oscar nomination.

There wasn’t much in Torn’s filmography that suggested that he might be a gifted comic performer when Albert Brooks cast him as a defense attorney in Defending Your Life (1991). But Torn tuned in perfectly to Brooks’s wavelength, and his performance convinced Garry Shandling and his team that he’d be a great fit for the role of Artie, the producer of a late-night television talk show whose loyalty to the neurotic host, played by Shandling, borders on obsession. Over the course of nearly ninety episodes running from 1992 to 1998, The Larry Sanders Show mined fresh comedy from the contrast between the gung-ho personas we present to the world when we’re on the job and the almost invariably more cynical and fearful selves we truly are. It’s territory that would be further explored in shows ranging from The Office to Veep.

Torn was nominated for a best supporting actor Emmy every year that The Larry Sanders Show was on the air—and he won in 1996. “With a scowl that would occasionally break into a satanic jack-o’-lantern grin, Artie made Rip Torn a titan of U.S. TV comedy,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “His character said the unsayable about media celebrity—bitterly wisecracking behind the scenes, in the green room, in the production office, far from the studio set in front of the live audience, where the magic is supposed to happen.” For Variety’s Daniel D’Addario, Artie was “perhaps the best representation of Torn’s unusual blend of toughness and tender sentimentality, a turn that was as often profane as it was unexpectedly moving.”

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