The wild life of Hollywood legend Rip Torn

Ben Arnold
Contributor
Rip Torn is honoured at the Texas Film Hall Of Fame Awards at Austin Studios on March 10, 2011 in Austin, Texas. (Credit: Jay West/WireImage)

Much like Artie, his wily, Salty Dog-guzzling TV producer in The Larry Sanders Show, Rip Torn, who died yesterday at the age of 88, was, by any measure, one of a kind.

Born Elmore Rual Torn Jr in 1931 – all the men in his family used the nickname 'Rip' – he turned to acting after a stint in the US Military Police, studying at the Actor's Studio under the legendary 'method' coach Lee Strasberg.

He made a name for himself on stage, and was much admired by iconic director Elia Kazan, who saw him as a potential successor to Brando, casting him in a number of stage productions and giving him his break in the movies, with a small role in the 1956 black comedy Baby Doll.

Read more: Rip Torn dies at 88

Later, as his profile grew, Torn played Slade, the corrupt millionaire in The Cincinnati Kid opposite Steve McQueen, before losing out on the lead role in Easy Rider, which ushered in one of the more colourful incidents of Torn's life off-camera.

It was said that writer Terry Southern had penned the part of George Hanson especially for Torn, but it was after Dennis Hopper, the film's director, claimed that Torn pulled a knife on him in a furious row in a diner during the movie's pre-production, that Torn walked away from the role.

Jack Nicholson was drafted in, and it launched his career, but that wasn’t the end of it. Torn took Hopper to court for libel, saying that in fact it was Hopper who had pulled the knife on him. The judge found in Torn's favour, ordering Hopper to pay him $475,000 in damages.

It would not be his only run-in with a filmmaker.

Rip Torn and Norman Mailer on the set of the play 'The Kitchen' at the 81st Street Theatre, New York, New York, June 1966. Torn played the male lead in the production. (Credit: Susan Wood/Getty Images)

An outtake from eminent American writer Norman Mailer's 1970 movie Maidstone has long done the rounds on YouTube.

During one scene – part of a shoot which was described as 'five drug-fuelled days in East Hampton' – Torn hit Mailer in the head with a tack hammer, drawing blood.

The two then begin violently brawling as cameras continue to roll, Torn choking Mailer on the ground, before Mailer bites a chunk from Torn's ear, upon which the fight is broken up by Mailer's distraught wife Beverly Bentley.

He starred with Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth, played the holy man Maax in Don Coscarelli's The Beastmaster, was Oscar-nominated for his role in Cross Creek, and won an Emmy in 1996 after six nominations for playing the magnificent Artie in The Larry Sanders Show (a role he said he took because he owed members of his family ‘a lot of money’).

Latterly, he was the grizzled agency boss Zed in Men In Black, the head of General Electric Don Geiss in 30 Rock and a delight as drunken niche sporting legend and spanner-hurler Patches O'Houlihan in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.

But his off-screen antics remained the stuff of legend, though lent a sadness by his issues with alcohol.

Rip Torn mugshot, actor after his arrest for driving while intoxicated, New York State Police photo on black

He was arrested in 2008 for drunk driving with a Christmas tree tied to the roof of his Subaru.

Then in 2010, he was arrested again and charged with carrying a firearm without a permit, carrying a firearm while intoxicated, first-degree burglary, second-degree criminal trespassing and third-degree criminal mischief.

Police reported that he was found breaking into a bank in Salisbury, Connecticut, reckoning it to be his home. He pleaded guilty to the charges, and was given a suspended sentence.

“I have certain flaws in my make-up. Something called irascibility. I get angry easily. I get saddened by things easily,” he once said.

Now it's our turn to be sad.

Online, people have been sharing their favourite memories and encounters with Torn, and there are some absolutely brilliant stories about the star.


RIP Rip Torn.