Defending Rip Torn’s Life

In a career that spanned 60 years, character actor Rip Torn was perhaps best known for bringing a crusty edge to light comic fare. His deep Texas drawl, narrow-eyed scowl, and smile that always suggested a touch of the unhinged played well in films like Men in Black and Dodgeball.

Many an actor’s work that’s been widely seen doesn’t necesarily reflect the full depth of their ability. Such is certainly the case for Torn.

Born Elmore Torn on February 6, 1931 in Temple, Texas, Torn took his nickname “Rip” as his stage name. His first screen credit dates back to 1956 in a small part on a long-forgotten TV show called Omnibus.

Much of Torn’s early years were spent mixing guest spots on TV with mostly minor roles on film. He had a significant part in 1959’s Pork Chop Hill, a Korean War film starring Gregory Peck. Two years later he would play Judas in Nicholas Ray’s telling of the story of Christ, King of Kings.

In 1962 Torn reprised his stage role onscreen in Sweet Bird of Youth, playing Thomas Finley in the Paul-Newman-starring film based on the Tennessee Williams play.

Over the next decade Torn continued to define the term “working actor” on both the tube and the silver screen, appearing in everything from Bonanza and Mannix on TV to the Cincinnati Kid. He portrays the novelist Henry Miller in Tropic of Cancer and a mobster in the blaxploitation flick Slaughter starring Jim Brown.

Torn infamously missed out on the part of a lifetime in Easy Rider due to a fierce argument with Dennis Hopper that ended (according to Hopper) with Torn producing a knife. Jack Nicholson stepped in for Torn and changed the trajectory of his career by playing George Hanson in the counter-culture classic.

1973 would bring Torn’s greatest lead performance in the criminally underseen Payday. Playing one of the great louts in screen history, Maury Dann – a fictional country singer – Torn is a force of nature. Payday is a relatively plotless story of Dann’s misadventures that veer from bad behavior to outright criminality. Dann is a remarkably crummy human being taking advantage of everyone around him. He takes advantage of women, fires a band mate for convincing him to give up the dog he isn’t taking care of, and most horrifyingly knifes a man to death whose girlfriend he slept with earlier in the film. He then has his tour manager arrange for his chauffeur to take responsibility for the stabbing.

Few films have such a relentlessly awful and irredeemable character at their center. Fewer still have a leading man who can carry such a picture and keep you transfixed. Torn was the perfect actor to play Maury Dann. It’s a shame more people haven’t seen it.

In a better world, Payday would have turned Torn into a bigger star. Instead, his career continued much in the way it had before. More TV and the occasional role onscreen in something terrific. 1976 brought a fine supporting part in Roeg and Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. Three years later a lovely film called Heartland that Roger Ebert once raved about arrived. That fine film garnered about as much notice as Payday.

In 1983 Torn scored his only Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in Martin Ritt’s biopic Cross Creek about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (the author of The Yearling) with actress Mary Steenburgen as the lead.

Torn’s next great role wouldn’t come for another eight years, until Albert Brooks’ wonderful Defending Your Life. Playing a lawyer in purgatory, he attempts to convince a panel of judges that Brooks’ character deserves to go to heaven. Here, Torn’s irascible charm is put to its finest use. He magically softens his edge and produces the warmest, sweetest, and funniest performance of his film career. Relentlessly jolly in his pursuit of moving Brooks’ mediocre life to the next phase, Torn is simply unforgettable. It is one of the great mysteries in life why Defending Your Life wasn’t more successful. Brooks, Torn, and Streep all give wonderful performances in this joyful, hilarious comic-fantasy. I’ve never known anyone who has seen it and didn’t love it (and especially love Torn).

Torn’s greatest critical success came on television with his six-season stint as Artie, the producer of a late-night talk show starring Garry Shandling as the titular Larry Sanders on The Larry Sanders Show. Torn scored six consecutive best supporting actor nods for his work – winning once in 1996. As Artie, Torn played a man in charge of keeping the show running while dealing with the neuroses of the show’s host and the bumbling Jeffrey Tambor as Hank, Sanders’ Ed McMahon-like sidekick. It’s one of the best comedies television has ever produced. While the show perfectly suited the personality of its lead, it was Torn who held all the pieces together. His outwardly sunny demeanor masking a just barely veiled, well-earned showbiz cynicism, Torn is a constant delight. Every word that left his mouth was funny. It was like magic. The episode where Artie breaks down and openly feuds with Larry while going on a bender is one of the most side-achingly hilarious episodes of television I have ever seen.

After The Larry Sanders Show ended in 1998, Torn appeared in some fine dramas (The Insider, The Wonder Boys), and two films deserving of cult status – Forty Shades of Blue and Turn the River – but he gained more notice for the freshly revealed comedic chops he had shown on television. He turned the line “If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball” into a major point of reference for lovers of lunkhead comedies, and his stealthy funny work on the MiB movies showcased his talents to his widest audience.

Those late career peaks were just a sliver of all that Torn was capable of. Rip Torn spent the better part of seven different decades journeying from part to part. Many of his 191 credits are the sorts of things a great actor who isn’t a star takes on to keep the pocket full while looking for something to fill his soul.

On and offscreen Torn was a legendary crank. His Wiki page has sections devoted to “legal troubles” and “on-set conflicts.” He is a man whose greatest film performance and most significant opportunity are connected by the brandishing of a blade. No wonder his most significant critical success came from  a television show about art imitating life.

Rip Torn died yesterday, July 9, 2019. He was 88 years old.


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