Actor Rip Torn, one of the most versatile and respected character actors of his generation, died Tuesday in Lakeville, Conn, his publicist announced that night. Torn was 88. He reportedly died peacefully with his wife, Amy Wright, and two daughters, Katie and Angelica, by his side. No cause of death was given.
Albert Brooks, with whom Torn costarred in Brooks’ afterlife comedy, Defending Your Life, responded to the news with a heartfelt tweet: “I’ll miss you Rip, you were a true original.”
It was Torn’s performance in that film as Bob Diamond, an attorney defending Earth’s “Little Brains,” that put him on the radar of the creators of The Larry Sanders Show. Torn joined that show in the role of Artie, the veteran producer who used his show business wiles to protect neurotic late night talk show host Larry—played by Garry Shandling—from “the bullshit.” In a 2010 New York Times interview, Shandling said that reading with Torn during the casting process was like trying to describe a good date to a friend the next day. “I had to say to HBO… ‘Honestly, this is the best sex I have had,’” he said.
Torn called Artie his favorite role in an interview on Roger Ebert.com—but confessed that he only took the part because, he said, he owed a lot of people money. “Some said I’d never pay them back,” Torn recalled, “but I did.” He was Emmy-nominated for each of the series’ six seasons, winning once in 1996. The best of the show’s Artie-centric episodes include “Artie and Angie and Hank and Hercules,” in which Artie reveals his and Angie Dickinson’s torrid past, and “Arthur After Hours,” a long night’s journey into day as Artie, resentful of being taken for granted by Larry, quits the show.
Torn’s career spanned the 1950s golden age of live television to feature films and Broadway, where he made his debut in 1960 in his Tony Award-nominated role in Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth. He appeared in independent films such as the X-rated Coming Apart in 1969, major studio blockbusters such as the Men in Black, franchise and popular mainstream comedies such as Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.
Among his most affectionately recalled credits—for genre film fans, anyway—is his role as the evil wizard Maax in the 1982 cult favorite, Beastmaster. His last major role was as General Electric CEO Don Geiss, mentor to Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy, in the TV series, 30 Rock. Baldwin also celebrated Torn on Tuesday: “He was a deeply committed, phenomenal actor. See you down the road, Rip. You wonderful madman,” he wrote.
An award-winning stage director, Torn had less success as the director of the film The Telephone (1988), a trouble-plagued production in which he was at odds with star Whoopi Goldberg, who sued to keep the movie from being released. She lost, and the film was a box office and critical flop.
Torn could be a volatile and unpredictable presence onscreen and off. While shooting Norman Mailer’s Maidstone, Torn once attacked Mailer with a hammer during a scene; Mailer in turn bit his ear. Both drew blood. The scene had to be broken up by cast and crew. “I had to do that, you know I did,” Torn can be seen telling Mailer, with the cameras still rolling, in footage from the incident. In a 1971 interview that appeared in Filmmaker’s Newsletter, Torn addressed the infamous moment: ”He was angry for several years till he put the film together. The film doesn’t make it without that scene.”
In an incident that eventually found its way to court, Torn also allegedly attacked Dennis Hopper with a knife, which cost him the role in Easy Rider that went to Jack Nicholson. At least, that’s how Hopper told it on The Tonight Show in 1994. Torn subsequently sued Hopper for defamation, claiming that it was Hopper who pulled the knife and that the story tarnished his reputation. “I wouldn’t say that I was blacklisted,” he said in an Associated Press interview in 1984, “but the word got around that I was difficult and unreliable. In all my years in the theater, I have never missed a performance.” Torn was ultimately awarded almost $1 million.
Torn was born Elmore Rual Torn Jr. on Feb. 6, 1931 in Temple, Texas. The nickname Rip was a family tradition, and he stubbornly refused to abandon it when he began his acting career. He studied under director Sidney Lumet’s father, Baruch Lumet, at the Dallas Institute of Performing Arts, and later studied at the famed Actor’s Studio in New York under Lee Strasberg. There he met Geraldine Page, whom he married in 1963. They were still married, but separated, when the actress died of a heart attack in 1987.
Director Elia Kazan, who considered Torn an actor with potential to be the next Marlon Brando or James Dean, gave Torn his break onscreen with small roles in Baby Doll (1956) and A Face in the Crowd a year later. Onstage, he cast Torn as Ben Gazzara’s understudy in the original production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Torn would later star opposite Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in Sweet Bird of Youth onstage and in the 1963 film adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play.
According to the official statement announcing his death, Torn claimed his “secret weapon” was his belief that actors should “play drama as comedy and comedy as drama.” Among his other memorable film roles was a feckless country singer in Payday (1973), the taciturn farmer who takes a bride in Heartland (1982), the grizzled father to Mary Steenburgen’s Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in the biopic Cross Creek (1984)—for which he was nominated for an Academy Award—and as an unctuous best-selling author in Wonder Boys (2000).
Even in the less distinguished comedy Welcome to Mooseport (2004), Torn was a pleasure, as Roger Ebert wrote in his review: “He makes us smile just by appearing on the screen.”
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