Rip Torn: One of the Last Hollywood Hellraisers

We look back on Rip Torn's career and how the occasional troublemaker turned bit parts into leading roles.

In the summer of 1969, Rip Torn was drunkenly screaming through New York’s West Village on his motorcycle when he slammed it into a police cruiser. Torn broke his leg in the accident but didn’t notice. The next morning, he got up, got on a plane, and flew to Paris where he was set to star in Joseph Strick’s film version of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. He shot the entire film all hopped up on painkillers for an untreated leg. And you know what? He still gives a remarkable performance. It wasn’t the only time he worked with broken bones either.

For over 60 years, Rip Torn carried on in the proud tradition of John Barrymore, Errol Flynn, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, and Lawrence Tierney as the last of the great Hollywood hellions. In between insane drunken escapades, he was nominated for Emmys and Tonys and Oscars, establishing himself as one of America’s most respected character actors and a man with a knack for making even a small role a pivotal one. Also he was in Every Movie and TV Show Ever Made. Next time you watch something take a close look at the credits and you’ll see.

Torn’s given name was Elmore Rual Torn Jr., but was nicknamed Rip as a boy, as was tradition among all the Torn men. He was born and raised and educated in Texas, studying animal husbandry in college before turning to acting. The motivation behind the decision was different than most. He hitchhiked to California to break into the movies, not because he wanted to be a big star but because he thought it would be an easy way to raise enough money to buy himself a ranch. Things didn’t work out quite as he’d planned, although he did earn small roles on TV and made his feature debut in an uncredited role as a dentist in Elia Kazan’s great and scandalous 1956 film, Baby Doll. Kazan hired him again the following year to play another uncredited but extremely important role in the equally great Face in the Crowd.

Although he wasn’t making the kind of money he needed to buy that ranch, he was getting enough acting jobs along the way to start taking the whole enterprise a bit more seriously. He moved to New York to study at the Actor’s Studio, worked in theater both on and off Broadway, and from the mid-’50s to the mid-60s established himself on TV in everything from Playhouse 90 and Thriller to Route 66 and The Untouchables. After that things took off.

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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. Plus, he was a chameleon who could shift his whole look and stature with the simplest change of accent. He would go on to play Judas in King of Kings, countless presidents, doctors, senators, military officers, and judges. He played rednecks and gangsters, cowboys and spies and executives. He played Walt Whitman twice and was in a whole bunch of Tennessee Williams plays. Trying to summarize his career is pretty much impossible, but there was a stretch there from the mid-‘60s to the late ‘70s when he was top billed and when he was turning small supporting roles into leads. At this time, he was moving easily between TV, experimental films, and big budget Hollywood jobs. He also started to earn himself a reputation as a wild man.

Looking back on it now, it’s hard to imagine the kind of talent, both in front of and behind the camera, that came together on the 1965 period gambling picture, The Cincinnati Kid.  It was originally a Sam Peckinpah film with a script by Ring Lardner. Then Peckinpah was fired (surprise!) and Norman Jewison was brought in to direct. He thought the script was too self-important and talky, so he brought in Terry Southern. He also gave Hal Ashby his first big break, bringing him in as editor and assistant director. Steve McQueen stars as a hotshot young poker player in ‘30s-era New Orleans; Karl Malden is a former hotshot on the skids; Jack Weston is the loud whiny guy; Ann-Margret is the bad girl, Tuesday Weld is the good girl, and Edward G. Robinson is the old man, the undisputed champ, the stud poker king feared by everyone.

Ah, then there’s Rip Torn. His name’s deep in the credits, but the whole film turns around him. He plays the slick and sleazy Southern Gentleman who will stop at nothing to see the Robinson character toppled. See, Robinson beat him at poker once, and for a Southern Gentleman of his stature there’s nothing in the world worse than losing. There’s one scene in particular, Torn’s showpiece here, in which he tries to blackmail the dealer (Malden) into cheating, and though it doesn’t sound like much, nobody can muster up the cool menace like Torn. Oooh, he’s such a rotten son of a bitch.

Four years later, Torn starred in Moses Ginsberg’s first film, Coming Apart, an experimental number that’s been called “more a Happening than an actual movie.” Filmed with a single static camera to recreate the feel of a documentary, Torn stars as an unbalanced psychiatrist who torments and confuses his female patients, eventually going completely batty himself. It all takes place in one small room shot by that one unmoving camera. It’s at turns compelling and unbelievably tedious, and if it weren’t for Torn (thank god for that Actor’s Studio improv training) it would be unwatchable.

Around this same time Dennis Hopper cast Torn to be in Easy Rider. Then at what was either a production meeting or a cocktail party in New York (depending on who’s telling the story), Hopper and Torn got into a bit of a ruckus over whether or not all Texans were rednecks out to kill hippies. A knife was pulled (though Peter Fonda would later claim it was a butter knife, or maybe a fork, or maybe both). Next thing you know, Torn was thrown off the picture, and Hopper cast Jack Nicholson in his place.

About a year later, Torn joined the cast of Norman Mailer’s improvisational experiment, Maidstone. Essentially it was a raucous, drunken three-day party out at Grove Press founder Barney Rossett’s Long Island estate around which Mailer tried to film himself as a director trying to shoot a movie. As the story goes, before shooting started each actor was given a card briefly describing his or her character, and that was as close as anyone got to a script. One character, however, was given a card at random informing the holder that his character was in fact a CIA assassin whose job it was to kill Mailer. The card’s recipient was supposed to be kept a secret from everyone in the cast, including Mailer.

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Well, according to Rossett there was a little confusion there. Maybe it was the booze, or maybe the card simply wasn’t worded clearly. In any case, Torn (naturally) got the card, but instead of thinking his character was supposed to kill Mailer, he somehow got the idea that he was supposed to kill Mailer. Lucky for Mailer too, as the confusion resulted in the only scene in the film anyone remembers.

After the shoot was over and most everyone had gone home, Mailer and his family are walking back toward the house when they’re stopped by a grinning and quite mad Torn, who is also clutching a small hatchet. The cameras are rolling, and you can tell this was something Mailer was not prepared for. Nor was he prepared when Torn goes after his skull with the hatchet. The two wrestle each other to the ground, Mailer bites Torn’s ear, Torn leaves a deep gash in Mailer’s scalp, and Mailer’s wife and children scream in horror until a couple crew members pull Torn off him. And that, my friends, is entertainment!

(The next morning Rossett found a drunken little person floating in his swimming pool, but that’s another story.)

Then came the motorcycle accident and shooting Tropic of Cancer on a broken leg. As it happens, there were two films based on Henry Miller novels filming simultaneously two blocks apart in Paris.  Jens Jørgen Thorsen’s Quiet Days in Clichy starred Paul Valjean, an American dancer who looked an awful lot like Miller, but neither sounded nor acted like him. Torn, meanwhile, looked absolutely nothing like Miller but somehow by adopting just the slightest hint of a Brooklyn accent (and on all those painkillers) was able to embody him completely. It’s a gritty, funny, poetic film and Torn is great, though to be fair it should be noted that Clichy was dirtier.

Also in 1970, Torn spoke out against the war in Vietnam on a TV show and a few nights later someone fired a bullet through his window. It was a hell of a year for him.

In ‘73’s Daryl Duke film, Payday, Torn gives what he himself would later refer to as his best performance. Or maybe his favorite. In any case, he’s really something as Maury Dann, a womanizing, hard-drinking, bastard son of a bitch of a second-rate country singer. Dann and his band are on tour through the South as Dann screws over everyone around him, from band members to family, to pretty much every woman he meets. He never quite hit the top, but insists on acting and being treated like he has. Toward the end, he even talks his chauffer into taking a murder rap for him since he has to get to a show. It’s an extremely dark, cynical, and painfully accurate portrait of the country music business of the early ‘70s, and Torn does all his own singing. It makes for a nice counterpoint to Robert Duvall’s quiet, soft-spoken, and sensitive country singer in Tender Mercies from a decade later.

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Despite his name again being buried deep in the credits of Larry Cohen’s 1977 biopic, The Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover, the entire film revolves around him. He narrates, after all, and gives another memorable performance as a young man who decides to join the Bureau after his father (another agent) is gunned down by a two-bit hood on the street. After seeing what’s going on in the FBI, however, and after being punished himself for a minor indiscretion, he tries to bring Hoover down a notch or two. In what could have been a ham-fisted cartoon, both Cohen and Torn (and star Broderick Crawford near the end of his career) manage a shockingly human portrait.

As a flipside to Torn’s tendency to turn minor supporting roles into leads, there was 1978’s Coma, the medical conspiracy thriller directed by Michael Crichton and based on the Robin Cook novel. Torn was fourth-billed behind Geneviève Bujold, Michael Douglas, and Richard Widmark. And sure, Torn’s character, Dr. George, is the film’s central villain, the man behind a Boston hospital’s fiendish conspiracy to harvest human organs and sell them on the black market, but he only appears in one scene, and speaks roughly four lines. It’s unclear whether this was the plan from the start, an attempt to turn his character into another Harry Lime, or if maybe all his other scenes were cut after Torn went at Crichton with a hatchet (we can only hope). In any case, he was missed. He might have livened up what was otherwise a pretty godawful picture.

As Torn grew older, and a little larger as his hair got thinner, two things happened: he began playing more authority figures, which only makes sense I guess, and he also started doing more comedies and genre films. Sometimes he even combined the two, playing Ronald Reagan in 1982’s Airplane II: The Sequel.

 In ‘91 he was Bob Diamond, the charming, sleazy, and utterly ineffective lawyer trying to give Albert Brooks a boost out of Purgatory in Defending Your Life. He was the sinister CEO in the otherwise dreadful Robocop 3. He even began lending his voice to animated features and video games (usually playing a god of some kind).

Then in 1999 Dennis Hopper was a guest on Leno and told a few old Easy Rider stories, including the one about how Torn had pulled a knife on him at a party. Well, Torn, remembering things a bit differently, sued him for defamation.

It’s pretty hilarious if you think about it; these two guys who were both completely out of their heads in the late ‘60s going to court to determine which one of them was behaving badly. I mean, they both had reputations to maintain.

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Well, most of the witnesses agreed with Torn that it was Hopper who pulled the knife (except for Peter Fonda, who remembered all kinds of different utensils), and the court ordered Hopper to pay Torn nearly half a million in damages. It was all kind of silly. I mean, it’s not like the story cost him any work. Hell, trying to literally kill Norman Mailer on camera didn’t even cost him any work. But I guess pride’s a funny thing.

During this period, he continued to work regularly as Agent Zed in the Men in Black films, in sit-coms, in made-for-TV films, Christ, anything that came along. Every director I’ve ever heard talk about Torn can’t praise him highly enough for his talent and professionalism (except maybe Mailer), though given his admitted temper, it’s also possible they’re just scared of him.  He was nominated for six Emmys for his role on The Larry Sanders Show, and came to be recognized by a whole new generation as the executive Alec Baldwin worships but wants to replace on 30 Rock.

Along the way, he set himself the task of repairing any damage his reputation as a hellraiser might have suffered as a result of that Hopper lawsuit. The DUIs started adding up. Or at least getting noticed, in part thanks to the actor’s tendency to swing on the arresting officers. Along with being the president of the Extreme Dodgeball League (who knew it even existed?) it seems he was also an extreme regular at a bar near his Connecticut home. Every once in a while, the bartender himself would tip off the cops after Torn headed for his car. I’m not sure if that bartender’s still there, but even after being fingered like that, Torn remained a regular, although he didn’t always drive. And that in itself might have caused some problems.

After returning home from the bar one night in 2010, Torn found his keys didn’t work in the lock. Seeing no alternative, the 79-year-old was forced to break into his own house. He was probably surprised a few minutes later, just as he got his shoes off and was making himself comfortable, when the cops arrived and informed him that he wasn’t in his house at all but had broken into a nearby bank. And the cops were probably surprised to find Torn was carrying a loaded handgun. Yeah, he’s not the only one who’s been there, as I think many of us can attest.

Once it was clarified that it was not Torn’s intention to rob the bank, he was given a two and a half year suspended sentence and three years’ probation.

The arrest prompted the tight-assed, no fun creators of 30 Rock to kill off his character.

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He once proudly noted that he’s never missed a performance. He’s worked with broken legs, broken arms and ankles, and once while doing a play, he passed a kidney stone on opening night. He was a rare, tough old bird, a vanishing breed, and one of my heroes. We won’t see his like again.