Emmy award winning US actor with a prolific CV

Born: February 6, 1931

Died: July 9, 2019

Rip Torn, who has died aged 88, was an American character actor for screen and stage whose breadth of roles made him an actor who was every bit as idiosyncratic as his distinctive name. His stock-in-trade was the irascible, often damaged alpha male, and he played each part with a sensitivity which assured the audience he knew what he was doing.

Torn was an actor who elevated even a bad film; upon his death, the Spinal Tap actor Michael McKean correctly said that he “can’t think of a single performance that could have been bettered by another actor.” Torn’s sole Academy Award nomination was as Best Supporting Actor in the dimly-remembered 1983 literary drama Cross Creek, although an unintended career reinvention in the 1990s steered his career into the realm of dark comedy.

His big break in this field was the buttoned-up, straight-talking and vaguely menacing talk show producer Artie on hit US television sitcom The Larry Sanders Show between 1992 and 1998, a role which lives in the memory for an array of quotably bizarre lines; “don’t take this as a threat, but I killed a man like you in Korea… hand to hand” was one, delivered to a woman in a business meeting by a puffed-up Artie.

He was nominated for Emmy Awards for Artie in every year between 1993 and 1998, winning in 1996, when he was also nominated for a guest role in medical drama Chicago Hope. Torn’s other Emmy nominations were for the drama The Atlanta Child Murders in 1985 and for a recurring guest role as eccentric CEO Don Geiss in Tina Fey’s 30 Rock in 2008.

Artie was a significant breakthrough for an actor who had worked consistently since the mid-1950s. In the following years he most notably appeared opposite Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as Agent Zed, head of the alien investigation agency in Men in Black (1997) and its 2002 sequel; as deranged and gleefully stereotyped coach Patches O’Houlihan in sports spoof Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story in 2004; and with another guest role on the hit comedy show Will and Grace (2002).

More dramatic roles came with Michael Mann’s Russell Crowe and Al Pacino-starring tobacco industry expose The Insider (1997), Curtis Hanson’s quirky drama of late middle-age Wonder Boys (2000), Sofia Coppolla’s historical drama Marie Antoinette (2006) and in The Golden Boys (2008), a reunion with fellow 1960s survivors David Carradine and Bruce Dern. His voice work also appeared in Disney’s animated retelling of Hercules (1997) and in Dreamworks’ Bee Movie (2007).

Such prolific late-career recognition came to an unexpected end, however, when Torn was arrested in unlikely circumstances in January 2010, in the town of Lakeville, Connecticut, intoxicated and asleep on the floor of a local bank, firearm in hand. His response to police when awakened suggested he believed he was in his own home, and while he avoided custodial time for the incident, his issues related to alcohol abuse were raised in the trial. Torn was 79 at the time of the incident; it’s uncertain whether this controversy or old age killed off his career, yet neither must have helped.

Despite the enduring pleasure of seeing him onscreen over the decades, it’s also impossible to discuss the early decades of Torn’s career without mentioning controversy. The role which broke Jack Nicholson’s career in Easy Rider (1969) was written specifically for Torn, but he was sacked from the film after an altercation with director Dennis Hopper; in the 1990s a court upheld Torn’s lawsuit denying Hopper’s claim that he had pulled a knife on the director, awarding damages.

One of the most striking scenes in Torn’s career came in one of the least well-received films, writer Norman Mailer’s arthouse vanity project Maidstone (1970); a largely unmemorable film which nevertheless climaxes with an apparently real brawl between Torn and Mailer, during which Torn strikes Mailer with a hammer and Mailer bites Torn’s ear, drawing blood. “I have certain flaws in my make-up,” said Torn in interview during the 1970s. “Something called irascibility. I get angry easily, I get saddened by things easily.”

None of which stopped him working prolifically. Torn’s screen debut came in 1956, in Elia Kazan’s Tennessee Williams-written Baby Doll, and he also appeared in Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd the following year. He had early television parts in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Man from UNCLE and Rawhide, while film roles included cult country music classic Payday (1972), Michael Crichton’s sci-fi film Coma (1978), political thriller The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979) and Airplane II: The Sequel.

He was also the confidante of David Bowie’s visiting alien in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), while his own lack of a leading man breakthrough was offset somewhat by roles opposite Paul Newman (Sweet Bird of Youth, 1962), Steve McQueen (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965), Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds (both City Heat, 1984).

He was directed by Francis Ford Coppolla, appeared in the blaxploitation film Slaughter, and played Judas Iscariot and Richard Nixon. Beginning with Sweet Bird of Youth in 1959, he appeared in ten Broadway plays and directed one over the next four decades, and was prolific in off-Broadway shows.

Elmore Rual Torn Jr – ‘Rip’ is a long-standing family nickname – was born in Temple, Texas in 1931 to Thelma and agriculturist Elmore Sr; his maternal cousin is the actor Sissy Spacek, whom he encouraged into the business. He attended the University of Texas, where he studied Shakespeare and was in the University’s military Corps of Cadets, working for a time in the Military Police before heading to Hollywood looking for acting work.

Married three times, for the last three decades of his life to the actor Amy Wright (his second wife Geraldine Page died after 25 years of marriage in 1987), Torn is survived by four daughters, two sons, his grandchildren and an enviable screen CV.