Brow Beat

Actor Rip Torn Dies at 88

Actor Rip Torn, in a closeup from one of his movies.
Rip Torn in the 2008 film August.
57th & Irvine Productions

Rip Torn, the Texas-born actor who brought his volatile, mischievous presence to stage, screen, and television for more than 60 years, has died at his home in Lakeville, Connecticut, according to the Hollywood Reporter. He was 88.

Torn, whose real name was Elmore Rual Torn—many of his earliest interviews are just him explaining that “Rip” was really what he went by, not a stage name—studied acting at the University of Texas under B. Iden Payne. He made his screen debut in 1956 in an uncredited role in Baby Doll, a Tennessee Williams adaptation by director Elia Kazan. Kazan also put him in A Face in the Crowd, again uncredited, and Torn would go on to appear in several Kazan/Williams stage collaborations. He was an understudy in Kazan’s Broadway production of Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which he joined in 1956. In 1959 he appeared in Sweet Bird of Youth, another Kazan/Williams production, as part of a cast that included Paul Newman, Bruce Dern, and his future wife Geraldine Page. Torn got a Tony nomination for his original role in the play, then replaced Newman in the lead; both actors went on to recreate their original roles in the 1962 film version. Besides his stage work, Torn was making a name for himself on television at the time, turning in critically acclaimed performances in live television dramas—the prestige TV of their day—like The Kaiser Aluminum Hour, The Alcoa Hour, The United States Steel Hour, Kraft Theatre, and Playhouse 90. As the decade ended, he returned to film in the Korean War drama Pork Chop Hill. He can be seen politely telling an Army public information officer and his photographer to go to hell in his inimitable Rip Torn way at 1:40 in the theatrical trailer:

Torn divorced his first wife, actress Ann Wedgeworth, in 1961 and married Page in 1963. Page and Torn quickly became a power couple in New York theater—both served on the board of the Actors Studio—but he was rapidly acquiring a reputation for being difficult. He clashed with director Burgess Meredith and author James Baldwin during the New York run of Baldwin’s play Blues for Mister Charlie, and was let go from the London production for his “corrosive attitude.” In 1967, he had a notorious altercation with Dennis Hopper while discussing the possibility of taking a role in Easy Rider. Hopper would later claim Torn pulled a knife on him—in Torn’s version of the story, the knife was Hopper’s. (Whoever the knife belonged to, the role went to Jack Nicholson.) Torn sued Hopper for defamation after Hopper told his version of the story on The Tonight Show in 1994, writer Terry Southern and his wife testified to Torn’s version of events, and Hopper had to pay nearly $1 million in damages for the work Torn missed out on in the ensuing decades while Hopper dined out on the story. It has to be said that Hopper wasn’t solely responsible for Torn’s reputation: In 1970, when Torn appeared in Norman Mailer’s film Maidstone, the two men staged an improvised fight that turned genuinely violent. Torn attacked Mailer with a hammer, Mailer bit off part of Torn’s ear, crew, children, and spouses were traumatized, and, since it was 1970, the whole thing ended up in the final film:

Torn’s career stalled out in the 1970s, which he would later attribute to his political stances: In the 1960s, attending a meeting about integrating theaters at James Baldwin’s invitation had earned him FBI surveillance, and someone shot out a window at his apartment after he spoke out against the Vietnam War on The Dick Cavett Show. His career slowed rather than stopping outright, however: Most notably, he traded on his reputation to play a debauched country singer in 1973’s Payday, a nasty little road movie that let him lean into his wild side:

In 1984, Torn got his only Oscar nomination, a Best Supporting Actor nod for his performance in Cross Creek, a film that starred Mary Steenburgen as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. History repeated itself: just like the part in Easy Rider, the Academy Award went to Jack Nicholson:

But Torn’s career bounced back and then some in the 1990s, as his performance in the Albert Brooks movie Defending Your Life led to a role on the hugely influential HBO series The Larry Sanders Show. As Artie, the producer of star Garry Shandling’s fictional talk show, Torn turned what was supposed to be a straight man role into a scene-stealing work of comic genius. The role earned him Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series Emmy nominations six years in a row, from 1993 through 1998; he won the Emmy in 1996. After Larry Sanders, Torn had a second career in comedy, appearing in Canadian Bacon, the Men in Black franchise, 30 Rock (which got him another Emmy nomination) and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, in which he memorably threw a wrench at Justin Long:

Torn’s personal life remained tumultuous to the end: He had several DUI arrests and in 2010, he was found inside a Connecticut bank after hours, drunk, with a loaded gun. He later testified he had mistaken the bank for his house, and pleaded guilty to criminal mischief and several criminal-mischief-adjacent charges.

He is survived by his third wife, actress Amy Wright, six children, and four grandchildren.