Ask most actors why they took on a particular role, and they'll talk about the challenge of the character, the growth it promised them as artists or the thrill of working with a particular director or costar.

Ask Rip Torn why he wanted to play Kit Carson in "Dream West," a mini-series that starts tomorrow, and he says, "I wanted to get out of town."

"I was told we were going to be at Jackson Hole, and I have a lot of friends that live right north of there . I was told I'd be there for at least three months. So I came with my fishing tackle, my kayak, my rifle and shotguns . . . They see me and say, 'What did you bring all this stuff for?' "

It turned out there was some "wrangle" with Grand Teton National Park, where some filming had been planned, and the crew left Jackson Hole quickly and "hit the road," filming the series about explorer John Charles Fre'mont in Colorado, Arizona, Utah and Virginia. But it wasn't just the lure of fishing in Wyoming that appealed to Torn. It was also the promise of riding the horse he had ridden in "Cross Creek," the movie about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in which Torn played the father of the girl who adopted the deer. "Dream West" director Dick Lowry owns the horse, and Torn said his Academy Award nomination for "Cross Creek" was half earned by Brownie, "an absolutely splendid animal."

Elmore Rual Torn ("Rip" was a childhood nickname) has been an actor for 30 of his 55 years and during that time has fashioned a career that includes Shakespeare, Strindberg, O'Neill, Williams and Shaw on stage and a set of screen character roles running heavily to rough outlaws, swamp rats, loutish politicians and snarling psychopaths.

Some of the films have been forgettable. He played Richard Nixon in the television version of John Dean's "Blind Ambition," a supernatural villain in "The Beastmaster," a rotten gambler in "Jinxed," Ulysses S. Grant in "The Blue and the Gray." He was nominated for an Emmy for his role as the prosecutor in "The Atlanta Child Murders."

For years he was thought of as one of the quintessentially New York actors, trained by Lee Strasberg and Sanford Meisner, a regular on Broadway and the smaller off-Broadway stalwarts like Sheridan Square Playhouse and Circle in the Square, owner of a Greenwich Village brownstone. But he says the only reason he didn't do more film work is that it wasn't offered, partly because he had the wrong agents and partly because he was considered "some kind of a radical" for civil rights activities.

"I was in an FBI memo as having attended a meeting of 'prominent Negroes,' " he said. "I guess that says something about them that they had me listed as a prominent Negro."

There is a story that when he was first hired in Hollywood for a part in "Bonanza," he was told, "You can't ride a horse, you're a Method actor from New York."

"I'm a Methodist actor from Texas," he replied.

Torn was once cast in a play with a young Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman was fired by the producers, allegedly for being too argumentative. Torn talked to his replacement, noting that Hoffman's only problem was inexperience, that he should have been left alone, and by the way the play would have to be rewritten for the replacement because the part called for a short man. The replacement quit, and as Torn had predicted, Hoffman was rehired.

A few days later, Torn was fired. "They said they didn't think I could convey the emotional content of the role. But if there is anything I can do it's the emotional content," he said with believable emphasis. "I think their blood was up. They wanted to fire somebody. There is a feeling in the theater that if you fire somebody it's kind of like a ritual bloodletting and they feel good. But I've never seen them get a better actor than the one they fired . . . I've been fired for just the look in my eye, not for what I did."

Torn says he has changed, "turned a corner on a lot of things." Mellowed would be too strong a word to describe it, but he has learned, he says, to walk away from some of the disputes he used to walk into. His reputation for being "difficult," he said, is highly overrated.

"I did a film with Willie Nelson awhile ago, and he kind of held back in the first couple of scenes. He'd apparently been told I was a terrible pain. Then he says, 'Hey, you're fun to work with!' And I am fun to work with."

But the things that made him angry years ago still do, and two of them are: actors being treated like children and directors and producers who change the script after they've hired you.

"I tell my uncles he's from Taylor, Tex., and his family has all been connected with agriculture in one way or another, except for his cousin, actress Sissy Spacek that actors have things happen to them all the time that don't happen to other people in a lifetime. We get fired, we get replaced . . . Somebody said, 'Yeah, but you get applause. You're like a god up there.' And I said all I can think about is that in six weeks I'll be looking for another job . . .

"I tell young actors to learn the art of diplomacy. Because you have to go through 35 sovereign nations before you get in front of a camera. There's the casting people, the hair people, the costumes, the cameraman -- all these areas you can get somebody riled up if you have an attitude."

Divorced from actress Ann Wedgeworth (she played Patsy Cline's mother in "Sweet Dreams"), with whom he had a daughter, Torn married actress Geraldine Page, with whom he has three children, a daughter and twin boys now in college. Although she was quoted a few weeks ago as saying, "We've been together for 27 years, he talks constantly and I've never gotten bored yet," he says they have lived more or less separately for seven or eight years, since he decided to move to Los Angeles and concentrate on film work.

"We go out," he said.

Like on dates?

"Yeah, we go on dates."

For example, he took her to the Academy Awards ceremony, where she happened to win the Best Actress Oscar.

Some were surprised to see him at Page's side, since he has a 4-year-old daughter by another actress, Amy Wright. The girl lives with her mother in New York, where Torn visits her. "I saw her just the other day," he said. "I took her to the playground and she introduced me to all her friends." He gives Wright child support and will pay for his daughter's education, but he has no intention of getting married again. In fact he is still married to Page, "legally."

"I'm kind of living by myself these days. An independent existence . . . I've stopped worrying whether people think I'm proper or not."

There were three people who Torn says influenced him at key points in his life. One was his father, an agronomist, who told him to make a stab at being an actor or he'd never be happy doing anything else. Another was director Robert Radnitz, whose support led him to be cast in "Cross Creek," making possible his first Oscar nomination. The third was an unusual man who held the mortgage on the Torn/Page brownstone. Torn met him when he couldn't make a payment and needed some dispensation. They became friends, and Torn learned about the man's past as a radical, a supporter of various causes, a laborer who became a millionaire.

"He said to me, 'You have sold yourself out. You've sold your art out.' He'd come to my performances, to my four-hour workshop 'Hamlet.' He thought I'd gotten into a rigged deck. And he told me, 'Go out there and be the actor you could be.' " Out There was Hollywood, and Torn followed his advice.

He used to take his children on location when they were younger, and takes his role as a father very seriously. "I think I'm a good father but not a good husband . . . Gossip columnists can't understand why I'm friends with the mothers of my children. I can't understand the other."

Parents, he says, have "got to back each other up." A few years ago, he said, Page called and said she could no longer handle the twin boys and was sending them to him in California.

"They wanted to be artists, directors, actors, but all they wanted to do was watch other people's work. And I said, 'To be an original artist you have to learn from life.' That's when I sent them to a ranch in Two Dot, Montana.

"I called my friend who owns this ranch and I said, 'I want you to work the hell out of them. No movies.' I was so mad I wouldn't even let them call me 'Dad.' I said, 'I'm going to have to have some respect for you before I'll let you call me that, so until then it's "Yessir" or "No sir." ' I said, 'I want you to learn two words: "You bet." So when your Mom tells you to do something you say "You bet" and get moving.' When I picked them up they were much leaner, they had calluses and blisters and everything. And I said, 'You enjoy this?' and they said, 'You bet!' "

When he is not somewhere making a movie, Torn lives either in northwestern Connecticut, where he recently bought an old house, or in a beach house in California, where he has been known to stay in the ocean swimming for as long as four hours at a stretch.

He is a serious outdoorsman. Even when he lived in Manhattan he cultivated vegetables and herbs on the roof of his brownstone. "I've gotten a reputation as a hard location man," he said. "If it's up a mountain or in a swamp, get Torn." He takes his boat and his fishing gear and manages to have a good time wherever he goes.

Although Torn harbors yearnings to play "Othello" and "King Lear," and maybe a "farewell to Hamlet," he intends to concentrate on film in the future, and not just for the money. On stage, he notes, your performance lives for a couple of hours. Movies are forever.