Rip Torn, America’s celebrated wildman actor, has died aged 88. Torn, who had been a constant presence on stage and screen since the mid-1950s, was arguably better known for his eccentric, and occasionally violent, antics when the cameras weren’t rolling – and on one notorious occasion, when they were.
His publicist, Rick Miramontez, confirmed Torn died Tuesday afternoon at his home with his wife, actor Amy Wright, and daughters Katie Torn and Angelica Page by his side. No cause of death was given.
During the filming of Norman Mailer’s film Maidstone, a largely improvised production made at the height of the late-60s counterculture, Torn played Mailer’s brother, and attacked Mailer for real, hitting him over the head with a hammer and then attempting to strangle him. Mailer responded by biting Torn’s ear.
Torn’s reputation for irascibility had already been established inside the industry after a row with Dennis Hopper during the pre-production of Easy Rider, the seminal 1969 counterculture biker movie, that led to Torn being replaced by Jack Nicholson before shooting began. The incident became more widely known after Hopper claimed on a TV talkshow in 1994 that Torn had pulled a knife on him; Torn subsequent sued, claiming that Hopper had in fact pulled the knife on him. The court found in Torn’s favour, and awarded him $475,000 in damages.
Rip Torn with future wife Geraldine Page in the film version of The Sweet Bird of Youth. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock
By the time of Easy Rider, however, Torn was already an established figure in Hollywood. Born in Texas in 1931, the son of an agricultural economist, Torn’s given names were Elmore Rual, with “Rip” being a traditional nickname within his family. (His mother’s maiden name was Spacek; his cousin is Carrie star Sissy Spacek.) Torn studied drama at the University of Texas, before relocating to New York and the Actors Studio, the celebrated training ground for the “method” generation. There he fell in with the circle around director Elia Kazan, who gave Torn his first film part (in 1956’s Baby Doll) and his first substantial stage role, in the original 1959 production of Sweet Bird of Youth (as well as the 1962 film adaptation, directed by Richard Brooks).
Michael McKean (@MJMcKean)
Looking back on decades of Rip Torn’s work and can’t think of a single performance that could have been bettered by another actor. One of a kind. RIP.
Seth MacFarlane (@SethMacFarlane)
Rip Torn always made me laugh. Artie and Bob Diamond were two utterly unforgettable characters.
Torn’s career gained momentum during the 1960s: he played Judas Iscariot in the Nicholas Ray-directed King of Kings, as wealthy gambler Slade in The Cincinnati Kid, and appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s second film as director, You’re a Big Boy Now, in 1966. His stage career flourished at the same time, and reflected his burgeoning interest in radical politics: he appeared in James Baldwin’s 1964 play, Blues for Mr Charlie, based on the murder of Emmett Till – though he later fell out with Baldwin, after the writer softened some of the play’s controversial scenes after it transferred to London’s West End.
It was Torn’s friendship with writer and fellow Texan Terry Southern (the pair met on Cincinnati Kid) that led to the Easy Rider debacle: Southern had written the role of lawyer George Hanson for Torn, but after the altercation with Hopper it went to Nicholson. Torn later claimed it had damaged his career, and it’s certainly the case that it did not progress in the 1970s and 80s in the way he might have expected. He played a mobster in the 1972 blaxploitation Slaughter, and an industrialist in the 1976 oddball sci-fi film The Man Who Fell to Earth (opposite David Bowie); he received an unexpected best supporting actor Oscar nomination in 1983 for the lyrical 1920s-set author memoir Cross Creek. He also made a disastrous directorial debut with the 1988 Whoopi Goldberg comedy The Telephone; Torn found it difficult to deal with Goldberg’s improvisatory style and the pair clashed repeatedly. Otherwise, much of his time was spent becalmed in run-of-the-mill crime and horror.
Emmy-winning upturn … Garry Shandling and Rip Torn in the 90s comedy hit The Larry Sanders Show. Photograph: courtesy HBO/Everett/Rex Features
However, Torn experienced a dramatic career upturn after being cast as Machiavellian, foulmouthed talk-show producer Artie in The Larry Sanders Show, after the producers were impressed by his turn as a lawyer in the Albert Brooks afterlife comedy Defending Your Life. The show ran from 1992 to 1998, and Torn was nominated for an Emmy for each of its six seasons: he only won once, in 1996. As a result, he began appearing in higher-profile films: notably as Agent Z in the blockbuster sci-fi comedy Men in Black in 1997, and the literary comedy-drama Wonder Boys in 2000.
Albert Brooks (@AlbertBrooks)
R.I.P Rip Torn. He was so great in Defending Your Life. I’ll miss you Rip, you were a true original.
Tom Green (@tomgreenlive)
Just heard the sad news that the great Rip Torn has passed away. Rip was a class act. He was an incredible actor. One of the greats. A true legend. I am proud to have worked with him and to have known him. Rest in peace Rip.
Torn worked constantly in the next decade, appearing in everything from broad comedies such as Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and Freddy Got Fingered, to high-status period drama such as Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. He also had a recurring role in the TV industry satire 30 Rock as network chief Don Geiss.
Rip Torn as Patches O’Houlihan in the 2004 film Dodgeball. Photograph: Allstar/20th Century Fox
However Torn’s reputation for volatility returned when he was arrested in 2010 for breaking into a Connecticut bank at night while carrying a loaded gun. Reports at the time suggested that a highly intoxicated Torn thought the bank was his home, and that he had fallen asleep inside the building. This followed a series of arrests for drink-driving, dating back to 2004.
Torn was married three times, all to fellow actors: Ann Wedgeworth (between 1956 and their divorce in 1961); Geraldine Page, who he met when they worked together on Sweet Bird of Youth (between 1963 and her death in 1987), and Amy Wright, who survives him after their marriage in 1989. Torn had six children, among them the successful stage actor Angelica Page.