Rip Torn, the tenacious, temperamental Texan whose much-admired career was highlighted by his brilliant turn as Artie the producer on HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show, died Tuesday. He was 88.
Torn, who was nominated for an Oscar for portraying the hard-drinking father Marsh opposite Mary Steenburgen in the 1984 Martin Ritt drama Cross Creek, died peacefully at his home in Lakeville, Connecticut, his publicist announced.
His wife, Amy Wright — an actress known for Stardust Memories and The Accidental Tourist — and his daughters, Katie and Angelica, were by his side.
Torn wowed critics as the fiercely protective Artie (his last name was never mentioned during the series) on The Larry Sanders Show, which starred Garry Shandling as a neurotic late-night TV talk-show host.
The groundbreaking sitcom ran from 1992 to 1998, and Torn received an Emmy nomination for every one of its six seasons, winning in 1996. His character was said to be based on Fred De Cordova, the longtime producer of Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show.
The part “was written to be a straight man,” he recalled in 2011, “but people were saying, ‘God, Rip is getting all those laughs. Who ever thought that Rip could be funny? Just everybody that knows him.'”
“With Rip, he came in the first time, and his agent said he wouldn’t read,” Shandling, who died in March 2016, said in 2012. “Weeks later, it was just him and me in a room with no one else, and I said to Rip, ‘Could we read half of this together?’ And he said, ‘I don’t want to read.’ I said, ‘That’s totally fine,’ and I pushed it to the side of the table.
“We talked for less than another minute, and he reached over and took the page, and he starts the scene. It’s like trying to describe a good date to a friend the next day. I had to say to HBO and everybody else, ‘Honestly, this is the best sex I have had.'”
Torn said he took the job because he owed family members a lot of money. Producers thought Torn would be perfect as Artie after seeing him play a lawyer in the Albert Brooks film Defending Your Life (1991).
A few years after the end of Larry Sanders, Torn’s unpredictability and intensity were smartly channeled on NBC’s 30 Rock, where he played Don Geiss, the amped-up CEO of General Electric and Jack Donaghy’s (Alec Baldwin) boss. He received another Emmy nom in 2008, the ninth of his career.
In other comedic turns, he portrayed Zed, the head of the top-secret government organization, in the first two Men in Black films; had fun as Patches O’Houlihan, a legend of his sport, in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004); and played King Looney in the sword-and-sandals spoof The Legend of Awesomest Maximus (2011).
As good as he was in comedy, Torn was at his best in dark dramas. He earned a Tony nomination in 1960 for playing Thomas J. Finley Jr. in Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth and was the shifty blackmailer William Jefferson Slade in The Cincinnati Kid (1965).
Onscreen debauchery was a specialty. He played a psychiatrist filming the women he sleeps with in the pornographic Coming Apart (1969); was a womanizing college professor who becomes David Bowie’s confidant in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976); and stood out as an egomaniacal record producer who seduces a young blonde in Forty Shades of Blue (2005).
Torn was married from 1963 to 1987 to the acclaimed actress Geraldine Page, whom he met at the Actors Studio in New York. One of the leading acting couples of their era, they founded the off-Broadway Sanctuary Theater Workshop in 1976. They were separated when she died of a heart attack in 1987 at age 62.
Torn also helped launch the Oscar-winning career of his cousin, actress Sissy Spacek, who was the daughter of his Uncle Ed.
Torn was an “actor’s actor,” but he had a reputation as a troublemaker.
Legend has it that he was all set for Jack Nicholson’s career-making role in Easy Rider (1969) before things went awry. Dennis Hopper, the film’s director, said years later on The Tonight Show that Torn had pulled a knife on him in a diner, costing him the job. Torn said it was Hopper that pulled the knife on him and sued for libel, winning $475,000 in damages.
In an improvised fight scene in Maidstone (1970), Torn attacked actor-director Norman Mailer with a tack hammer; Mailer then bit into Torn’s ear during the ensuing scrum. The Criterion Collection described the movie as being “shot over the course of five drug-fueled days in East Hampton, New York.”
“What do they say about all the guys that are tremendous actors?” he told The New York Times in a 2006 interview. “Don’t they say they have a volatile temper and emotions? Yeah, sure they do! They’re not saying they like a nice mild guy. Look at Sean Penn.”
In January 2010, Torn, intoxicated and armed with a loaded revolver, was arrested after he broke into a Connecticut bank after closing hours. He pleaded guilty and received a suspended sentence.
He was born Elmore Rual Torn Jr. on Feb. 6, 1931, in Temple, Texas. All the men in his family nicknamed themselves “Rip.” He enrolled at Texas A&M to study agriculture but transferred to the University of Texas at Austin to pursue architecture. Soon, he “defected,” as he put it, to the drama department, where he was taught by Shakespearean scholar B. Iden Payne.
Torn then apprenticed at the Dallas Institute of Performing Arts, studying under Baruch Lumet, the father of director Sidney Lumet.
After a two-year stint in the Army, Torn moved to New York and trained under Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, where he met Page during a speech class (he was separated from his first wife, Ann Wedgeworth, at the time). He drew the attention of director Elia Kazan, who regarded him as the next James Dean or Marlon Brando.
Kazan gave Torn his first big opportunity — as the understudy to Ben Gazzara as the booze-swilling Brick in the original 1955 production of Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Kazan later gave him small roles in Baby Doll (1956) and A Face in the Crowd (1957) and then cast him opposite Paul Newman and Page in Sweet Bird of Youth. (All three reprised their roles for the 1963 film.)
In these years, some producers objected to his “Rip” nickname and wanted him to use a more conventional stage name. He was billed as “Eric” for one production but vowed to head back to Texas if he were forced to use that name permanently.
Torn landed his first major movie role with Time Limit (1957), a court-martial drama in which he played a prisoner-of-war survivor who cracks on the witness stand. He went on to appear in another military-set drama, Pork Chop Hill (1959), and appeared as Judas in King of Kings (1961).
Also in the 1960s, Torn portrayed Ingrid Bergman’s young lover in the CBS prestige project Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life and guest-starred on many top TV shows of the era, including The Untouchables, Route 66 and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., exuding what one reviewer described as an “air of menace.”
After Torn met with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in an attempt to start an integrated national theater in 1963, he was targeted by the FBI and found trouble finding work in major motion pictures. “I began to see things in gossip columns, stories about me,” he once said.
In 1970, on the day after Torn spoke out against the Vietnam War on The Dick Cavett Show, a bullet was fired through the window of his Manhattan home.
He soldiered on, appearing on stage and in such films as Payday (1973), playing a mean, manipulative country singer, and the Italian import Crazy Joe (1974), as a gangster. Much later, he portrayed Louis XV for Sofia Coppola in Marie Antoinette (2006).
Torn is also survived by his twin sons Tony and Jon; another daughter, Claire; his sister, Patricia; and his grandchildren, Elijah, Tana, Emeris and Hannah.
Duane Byrge contributed to this report.