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Overview for Rip Torn
Rip Torn

Rip Torn



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Also Known As: Elmore Rual Torn Jr. Died:
Born: February 6, 1931 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Temple, Texas, USA Profession: Cast ... actor director cook


One of the most prolific performers on stage, screen and in television since the late 1950s, Rip Torn was a versatile character actor and occasional lead who brought prodigious, often overpowering energy and confidence to every role he embodied - no matter how dramatic or insignificant the project. He left his native Texas in the late 1950s to make his name in show business, but found the task more daunting than imagined, so he headed for New York to train under Lee Strasberg and soak up experience in theater. His reputation as a formidable talent brought him back to Hollywood, where he essayed a vast array of characters in features ranging from "Sweet Bird of Youth" (1962) and "The Cincinnati Kid" (1965), to experimental features like "Maidstone" for Norman Mailer. Torn worked steadily throughout the 1970s and 1980s, gaining praise for his solid performances and an Oscar nomination for "Cross Creek" (1983), before vaulting to the mainstream with his Emmy-winning turn as the fearsome Artie, producer of "The Larry Sanders Show" (HBO, 1992-1998). The success of that series turned Torn into a go-to for bullish tough-love types in comedies ranging from "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" (2004) to "30 Rock" (NBC, 2006-13), all the while solidifying him as one of the most respected and versatile figures in the acting business.

Born Feb. 6, 1931 in Temple, TX, Elmore Rual Torn, Jr. was the son of agriculturalist and economist Elmore Torn and his wife, Thelma Mary Spacek. A cousin from his mother's side of the family, Sissy Spacek, would year later gain entry into the Actors Studio through Torn's sponsorship in the early 1970s. Torn's unusual surname was part of a family tradition passed down to the men of the family, though he also went by "Skippy" as a youth. Torn studied animal husbandry at Texas A&M with the intention of becoming a rancher. He got into acting primarily as a means to acquire the funds to purchase property. He moved to Los Angeles and found work almost immediately in films and television, including Elia Kazan's "Baby Doll" (1956) and "A Face in the Crowd" (1957). However, the roles were minor and even uncredited, and Torn soon realized that his initial view of the acting business as a get-rich-quick scheme would require some modification.

Torn lit out for New York in the late 1950s and began studying under Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. Roles on stage soon followed, most notably in Tennessee Williams' "Sweet Bird of Youth" in 1959. Torn's on-screen career soon flourished, with roles on countless television series and small but significant parts in features like "Pork Chop Hill" (1959) as the brother-in-law of star Gregory Peck, and "King of Kings" (1961) as Judas Iscariot. The year 1962 saw him reprise his role as the menacing Tom Finley in Richard Brooks' film version of "Sweet Bird;" the success of the film helped to establish Torn as an up-and-coming character actor of note.

Blessed with an imposing frame and a deep, resonant voice, Torn was ideal as the heavy, such as the oily gambler and blackmailer Slade in "The Cincinnati Kid" (1965). He was also effective in tough authority roles like the gunnery sergeant in Cornel Wilde's surreal World War II drama, "Beach Red" (1965) or the baffled father in Francis Ford Coppola's "You're a Big Boy Now" (1967). Television consumed much of Torn's output until the late 1960s, when he shifted his attention to more experimental feature films. He starred opposite acclaimed author Norman Mailer, who also served as director for two efforts from this period - the largely improvised police drama "Beyond the Law" (1967) and "Maidstone" (1970), which became notorious for a seemingly unrehearsed brawl between actor and director which saw Torn taking a hammer to Mailer's head and the latter biting a chunk from Torn's ear.

Torn strayed even further from the mainstream with "Coming Apart" (1969), an intensely self-reflective drama about a psychiatrist who films his sessions with various women before turning the camera on himself to capture his own breakdown. Critics were particularly unkind to the film, which garnered an X rating for scenes of graphic nudity and sexuality. At the same time, Torn began balancing his arthouse endeavors with more commercial fare, including episodic television and grindhouse fare like the Jim Brown actioner, "Slaughter" (1972).

One significant missed opportunity during Torn's independent phase was "Easy Rider" (1969). Originally cast as lawyer George Hanson in the counterculture drama, Torn allegedly objected to director Dennis Hopper's views of the South and withdrew from the project; Jack Nicholson stepped into the role, which made him a star. The experience reared its head some three decades later when in 1994, Hopper recounted a version of the story for Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" (NBC, 1957- ) that had Torn pulling a knife on the actor during an argument. Torn filed a defamation suit against Hopper in 1999 that claimed that it was Hopper who pulled the knife on him; a judge found in Torn's favor not once but twice after Hopper attempted to appeal the ruling.

By the early 1970s, Torn seemed to settle into a groove that found him dividing his time equally between character-driven television projects and more intellectual film fare; both of which yielded praise from critics and audiences alike. He was an impressive Henry Miller opposite Ellen Burstyn in "Tropic of Cancer" (1970), and gave a bravura turn as an abusive, drug-addicted country singer in the cult favorite "Payday" (1973). He tempered his volcanic nature to play an introspective scientist who befriends David Bowie's alien in "The Man Who Fell to Earth" (1976) and a taciturn homesteader in "Heartland" (1979), as well as the little-seen Delbert Mann drama "Birch Interval" (1976), which saw him sharing screen time with his first wife, actress Ann Wedgeworth and their daughter, Danae. Other impressive performances during the seventies came as a hell-raising senator in "The Seduction of Joe Tynan" (1979) and as Richard Nixon in the miniseries adaptation of John Dean's memoir, "Blind Ambition" (CBS, 1979).

The 1980s started on a low note for Torn, with thankless roles in exploitation like "A Stranger is Watching" (1982), "Beastmaster" (1982) and the disastrous Bette Midler comedy, "Jinxed" (1982), but the following year, he experienced a career high point with his first Academy Award nomination for "Cross Creek" (1983). Starring as a rough-hewn Florida native whose daughter's relationship with a wild faun inspired Marjorie Kinnan Rawling's novel "The Yearling," Torn impressed critics and fans alike with his performance. He worked steadily on a variety of projects throughout the decade, but his finest work was on television, where he returned to the works of Williams twice; first as Big Daddy in an Emmy-winning production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1985) and later in "Sweet Bird of Youth" (NBC, 1989) as Boss Finley, father of the character that made him famous two decades before. Torn's other TV work in the 1980s included district attorney Lewis Slaton in "The Atlanta Child Murders" (CBS, 1985), Kit Carson in "Dream West" (CBS, 1986) and Lyndon Johnson opposite Treat Williams' "J. Edgar Hoover" in 1987. During this period, Torn also briefly dabbled with directing for the film "The Telephone" (1988), which was envisioned by screenwriters Terry Southern and Harry Nilsson as a dark comedy. The project fell into disarray with the casting of Whoopi Goldberg in the lead, and though an edit approved by Torn and the writers was screened at Sundance, an alternate version was released into theaters, where it was roundly panned.

After mourning the death of his longtime spouse and acting peer Geraldine Page in 1987, Torn underwent a sort of career transformation in the early 1990s, thanks to films like "Defending Your Life" (1991). The Albert Brooks comedy, which cast him as a no-nonsense, larger-than-life defense attorney for the recently deceased, led to a long string of film and television comedies for Torn. The best of these was "The Larry Sanders Show," a scathing satire of talk shows and the television industry as a whole, with Garry Shandling as the neurotic titular host of a popular late-night show and Torn as his bullish producer. Based on legendary "Tonight Show" producer Fred De Cordova, Artie seemed to be the perfect summation of Torn's screen persona: alternately terrifying and charming, and perfectly capable of physically threatening the biggest star while pampering the needs of another, all while displaying a wide, crocodilian smile. Torn received mountains of praise for his performance, as well as well an Emmy and American Comedy Award in 1994 and 1996, respectively. While working on "Sanders," Torn made a welcome return to Broadway opposite Shirley Knight in a 1997 production of Horton Foote's "Young Man with a Horn."

The popularity afforded by "Sanders" thrust Torn into the spotlight, where he worked with the pace and fervor of a man half his age for much of the decade and into the new millennium. And if some of the work seemed beneath an actor of his talent - how else to explain "Robocop 3" (1993), "Down Periscope" (1996) and the ghastly Tom Green comedy "Freddy Got Fingered" (2001) - there were also plenty of quality roles for him; most notably as the cheerful Zed, head of the "Men in Black" (1997), the voice of Zeus in Disney's "Hercules" (1997), public relations spinmaster John Scanlon in Michael Mann's "The Insider" (1999) and a well-loved author in the underrated "Wonder Boys" (2000). He briefly returned to television to play Rob Lowe's father in the short-lived "Lyon's Den" (NBC, 2003) before re-assuming his steady diet of theatrical comedies, including the unsung "Eulogy"(2004) and Ben Stiller's slapstick hit, "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" (2004).

That same year, the punishing workload seemed to take its toll on Torn when he was arrested for driving while intoxicated. News programs around the country broadcast disheartening footage of the actor berating police officers as he refused to undergo a breathalyzer test. Unfortunately, Torn was later twice arrested on similar charges in 2006 and 2009. Despite these setbacks, Torn continued to deliver memorable performances in films and on television. He was both amusing and imperious as a randy Louis XV in Sofia Coppola's inventive and colorful "Marie Antoinette" (2006), and earned another Emmy nomination in 2008 as Don Geiss, fictitious head of NBC on the critically acclaimed sitcom, "30 Rock." He also shone in the indie "Turn the River" (2008) as the crusty mentor to aspiring pool champ Famke Janssen, and as one of a trio of aging sea captains seeking a bride in "Chatham" (2008). In 2006, Torn made his debut as a producer with the short "The Convention" (2008), which was directed by his son Tony from his marriage to Page; he repeated the role for the feature "Lucky Days" (2008), in which he co-starred with daughter Angelica.

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