The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rip Torn, volatile actor who gained comic renown on ‘The Larry Sanders Show,’ dies at 88

Rip Torn in 2006. (Stephen Chernin/AP)

Rip Torn, an actor as volatile as he was versatile, who performed classic roles on Broadway, received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a backwoods Florida poacher, then won acclaim late in his career for the TV comedy “The Larry Sanders Show” and the films “Men in Black” and “Dodgeball,” died July 9 at his home in Lakeville, Conn. He was 88.

A publicist, Rick Miramontez, announced the death but did not provide a cause.

From his earliest performances in the 1950s, Mr. Torn brought a fraught, even dangerous emotional intensity to his acting. His repertoire spanned the plays of Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams and August Strindberg, while he also played villains, lowlifes and comic characters in film and on television.

Admired for his skill and depth as an actor — “he lets us see how rage and tears verge on each other,” New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael wrote — Mr. Torn also had a reputation for erratic episodes fueled by anger and alcohol.

While making the film “Maidstone” with novelist and director Norman Mailer in 1969, Mr. Torn lightly struck Mailer in the head with a hammer, leading to a tumbling brawl in which both men drew blood. Mailer almost bit off Mr. Torn’s ear, which had to be stitched together by a surgeon.

“I have certain flaws in my makeup,” Mr. Torn told Studs Terkel for his 1974 book “Working.” “Something called irascibility. I get angry easily. I get saddened by things easily.”

Mr. Torn never achieved the Hollywood stardom that seemed his early destiny, but he became a supreme character actor, variously portraying poet Walt Whitman, Italian movie producer Carlo Ponti and presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. In 1972, he played an amoral, pill-popping country singer in the film “Payday,” a critical favorite but box-office bomb.

He appeared opposite rock star David Bowie in Nicolas Roeg’s science-fiction film “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976), portrayed a malevolent doctor in the suspense thriller “Coma” (1978) and, with a crooked, leering grin, played a womanizing senator in the 1979 political drama “The Seduction of Joe Tynan.”

Onstage, Mr. Torn directed an experimental version of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” and, in 1975, appeared on Broadway in Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie.” The same year, he had the lead role in Strindberg’s “The Father” at the Yale Repertory Theatre in Connecticut in a cast that included a young Meryl Streep.

“The author considered ‘The Father’ midway between comedy and tragedy, and it is that dangerous borderline that Rip Torn walks with such precision,” New York Times theater critic Mel Gussow wrote. “Mr. Torn is unafraid of the grand gesture — tearing a door entirely off its hinges, ripping the buttons from his uniform, smashing his books to the floor. Each of these moments is an act of passion, and yet is also strangely comic. They are matched by interludes of calm and restraint.”

Mr. Torn received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor for his portrayal of Marsh Turner, a swamp-toughened and ultimately tragic character in the 1983 film “Cross Creek,” directed by Martin Ritt and starring Mary Steenburgen. (The Oscar went to Jack Nicholson in “Terms of Endearment.”)

In 1991, Mr. Torn made a noticeable foray into Hollywood comedy, playing Albert Brooks’s lawyer in the oddball life-after-death fantasy “Defending Your Life .” It led directly to Mr. Torn’s best-known role as Artie, the tough, unflappable and wickedly funny producer in Garry Shandling’s “The Larry Sanders Show,” about a fictitious talk show, with Shandling in the title role as the anxiety-ridden host.

“My agent told me I didn’t have to read for the part,” Mr. Torn told the Los Angeles Times in 1997. “But Garry threw a script at me and said, ‘You want to read?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And then, in a split second, I said, ‘But I will.’ Best thing I ever said in my life.”

The series, which aired on HBO from 1992 to 1998, showed Mr. Torn in a new comic light, as a profane, street-smart showbiz veteran who listened to everyone’s problems, tolerated no nonsense and managed to pull together a talk show every night.

With arched eyebrows, a brisk manner and a voice halfway between a snarl and a cackle, Mr. Torn’s character delivered some of the program’s best lines. Speaking about the show’s feckless second banana, Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor), Artie says, “Hank’s his own man, does whatever he wants. Sit down there, Hank.”

When an executive tries to get Shandling’s character to make commercials, Mr. Torn (as Artie) steps in as a protective guard dog.

“Don’t take this as a threat,” he says, with a cigar in the corner of his mouth, “but I killed a man like you in Korea. Hand to hand.”

Mr. Torn was nominated for six Emmy Awards for his work on “Larry Sanders,” winning one in 1996.

“He has his demons, Rip does, and you have to work through them,” Shandling said in a 2011 interview with the Television Academy Foundation. “But you get something really deeply genuine. It’s so alive.”

Elmore Rual Torn Jr. was born Feb. 6, 1931, in Temple, Tex. He was one of several men in his family, including his father and an uncle, who were nicknamed Rip because of their last name. His father was an agronomist, his mother a homemaker. The younger Mr. Torn later helped launch the acting career of his first cousin, Sissy Spacek.

After studying agriculture at Texas A&M University for a year, Mr. Torn transferred to the University of Texas at Austin, where his theater teacher was B. Iden Payne, a British-born Shakespearean actor and director whose career began in the 19th century.

Mr. Torn graduated in 1952, then served in the Army before moving to New York in 1955. He studied dance with Martha Graham and acting with renowned acting teachers Sanford Meisner and Lee Strasberg.

He first performed on Broadway in the 1950s in Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Sweet Bird of Youth.” In the latter, he played the thuggish son of a Southern political boss. In both the Broadway production and a 1962 film, the cast included Paul Newman and Geraldine Page, who became Mr. Torn’s second wife.

His first marriage, to actress Ann Wedgeworth, ended in divorce. He and Page shared a New York apartment with a nameplate reading “Torn Page,” but they often lived apart before her death in 1987.

Survivors include Mr. Torn’s third wife, actress Amy Wright; a daughter from his first marriage; three children from his second marriage; two daughters with Wright; a sister; and four grandchildren.

During the 1960s, Mr. Torn combined acting with political activism and joined writer James Baldwin and entertainer Harry Belafonte in a 1963 meeting with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to discuss civil rights.

Mr. Torn survived a serious motorcycle accident in 1969 — “I could feel my skeleton moving through my meat,” he said at the time — but he was proud of never missing a theatrical performance or a day of shooting on a film set.

His performance on “The Larry Sanders Show” led to a professional renaissance, with roles in “Men in Black” (1997) and its 2002 sequel, in which he was the head of a secret government agency investigating aliens arriving from space. He appeared in Curtis Hanson’s “Wonder Boys” (2000) as a pompous writer and had a recurring role in the TV comedy “30 Rock.” He starred in a 2005 drama, “Forty Shades of Blue,” as a jaded music producer, leading Times film critic A.O. Scott to call Mr. Torn “easily the peer of Jack Nicholson or Tommy Lee Jones.”

In 2004, he was in the hit film comedy “Dodgeball,” as an angry paralyzed Vietnam vet coaching a dodgeball team by throwing pipe wrenches at them. “If you can dodge a wrench,” Mr. Torn says, “you can dodge a ball.”

He hurls a wrench at one man’s head, knocking him to the floor, writhing in pain.

“Any other questions?” he asks.

In 1994, Mr. Torn won a defamation lawsuit against actor Dennis Hopper, who claimed that Mr. Torn pulled a knife on him after being turned down for a role in “Easy Rider.” In fact, Mr. Torn and other witnesses said, Hopper was the knife-wielder. Mr. Torn won a settlement of $475,000.

Long known as a heavy drinker, Mr. Torn was arrested several times for drunken driving and got into barroom fights well into his 70s. In 2010, he was charged with breaking into a bank near his home in Connecticut. Police found him passed out on the floor, with a loaded gun. He said he mistook the bank — in a converted house — for his home. He pleaded guilty to various criminal charges, received three years of probation and reportedly quit drinking.

“Every good actor is neurotic, difficult, crazy, or drunk,” Mr. Torn told the Times in 1969. “They think when I walk into a room, I’m a dangerous person. I’m not dangerous, just highly defensive, abrasive and corrosive.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Mr. Torn’s third wife, Amy Wright, as his companion.

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