Obituary: Rip Torn

Obituary: Rip Torn


Rip Torn, the actor, who died last Tuesday aged 88, became a familiar face on American television in the late 1950s and went on to appear in successful Hollywood films including King of Kings (1961), Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) and Tropic of Cancer (1970). The progress of his career was hampered by his reputation for being difficult to work with, but in the 1990s he found an enthusiastic new audience for his role as Artie in the television comedy series The Larry Sanders Show.

Torn defied the conventions of his calling by turning to projects that neither fostered his image as a leading man nor proved to be particularly bankable. In the 1960s he repeatedly spoke out against the Vietnam War and aligned himself with the American civil rights movement.

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Critically, he pulled out of Easy Rider (1969), in which he had been cast as Hanson, the lawyer who joins the road trip. He was said to have got into a drunken knife fight and told the producers that they were not paying him enough, reportedly storming out of a dinner party shouting: “I’m not going to do your shitty film.”

The part went instead to Jack Nicholson and catapulted him to stardom.

Then there was the on-off business of Torn’s name. Originally billed as Elmore Torn, he finally yielded to sustained pressure to substitute his childhood nickname “Rip”. To make matters worse, Torn talked of being persecuted, of intrigue and conspiracies, and was forced to agree that his reputation as a temperamental actor had made him virtually unemployable in Hollywood and on Broadway. Finding himself ostracised by the entertainment establishment, he ventured into fringe projects, but the greatness to which he felt entitled – and which his early work seemed to have promised – continued to elude him.

The son of an agricultural economist, he was born Elmore Rudolph Torn Jr on February 6, 1931 in Temple, Texas; his cousin is the Oscar-winning actress, Sissy Spacek. From high school he went to Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College, then switched to the University of Texas in Austin to study Architecture.

Realising that his true vocation lay in acting, he switched to Drama. Meanwhile, he also renamed himself Rip. At the Dallas Institute of Performing Arts, Torn learned the acting trade from the bottom up.

He travelled to New York where he trained at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio and was discovered by the director Elia Kazan, who promised to make him the next James Dean or Marlon Brando.

Torn’s first sizeable role, as the embittered, hard-drinking ex-football star Brick in a Broadway production of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, led to a run of appearances in assorted television dramas where he guest-starred in episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Restless Gun.

Within two years his dedication and persistence led to star billing in popular television drama series, while on Broadway he understudied and eventually replaced the leads in several notable productions. When Paul Newman left the cast of a revival of Tennessee Williams’s play Sweet Bird of Youth a month before the end of its Broadway run, Torn took over.

He reprised the role in MGM’s film version, and played Judas Iscariot in the epic King of Kings. Torn returned to theatre and television work, punctuated by occasional film parts that included a venal gambler in The Cincinnati Kid (1965), and as the embodiment of Henry Miller in the adaptation of the author’s notorious novel Tropic of Cancer.

Meanwhile, his stage ventures were becoming increasingly marginal. What one critic identified as “an air of menace” seemed to desert him, replaced by something more anodyne and even sensitive.

In 1976 Torn starred alongside David Bowie as a womanising college professor in Nic Roeg’s cult classic science fiction film The Man Who Fell to Earth. In 1983 he was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his role in Cross Creek.

Less successful was The Telephone (1988), his attempt at directing, in which Whoopi Goldberg played an out-of-work actress.

Torn’s career revived again in the 1990s when he co-starred as the caustic, workaholic producer Artie in The Larry Sanders Show on television, for which he won an Emmy award in 1996.

Latterly he was best known for his portrayal of Agent Zed in the Men In Black films, and for his numerous real-life appearances in court on drink-related charges.

Rip Torn was thrice married, first to Ann Wedgeworth, a fellow university drama student, with whom he had a daughter; and, secondly, to the actress Geraldine Page, with whom he had another daughter and twin sons. She died in 1987. In 1989, he married another actress, Amy Wright, who survives him, with their two daughters.

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