Rip Torn, the larger than life gruff-faced troublemaker and exceptionally gifted actor who became a powerhouse on stage and screens both big and small, died this week at his home in Connecticut.
Though he moved to the Northeast after a stint in the Army, Torn was always a Texan, albeit one of the rough and tumble variety.
Torn was born in Temple and raised in Taylor, the son of the agricultural economist who founded the Black-Eyed Pea Appreciation Society. He attended Texas A&M but later transferred to the University of Texas where he focused on drama. Torn was a natural, and it’s unfortunate that his talent has been overshadowed by his bad boy image of drinking and fist fighting, perhaps most famously with Dennis Hopper after being passed over for a role in “Easy Rider.”
When the camera rolled or the curtain raised, however, Torn could transform into anyone and was at his best with subtle and nuanced characters.
Here’s a look at some of the best — and one of the worst — of Torn’s performances over the years.
Forty Shades of Blue
This 2005 indie drama by Ira Sachs is perhaps Torn’s best, but least viewed performance.
The years near the turn of the millennium were full of huge budget CGI-fueled spectacles that haven’t aged well.
While the top film of 2005 are showing their age — “Star Wars: Episode III,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” — “Forty Shades of Blue” is timeless.
It’s a slow, methodical, dialogue-driven story, the kind some film buffs wish Hollywood still churned out. Torn plays Alan James, an aging, self-absorbed Memphis record producer who lives with his young Russian girlfriend, Laura (Dian Korzun).
Laura is forced to re-examine her life when Alan’s son from a previous marriage (Darren Burrows of “Northern Exposure” fame) comes to visit and she tires of Alan’s heavy drinking.
“I despised the character of Alan James so sincerely that I had to haul back at one point to remind myself that, hey, I’ve met Rip Torn and he’s a nice guy and he’s only acting,” Roger Ebert wrote of the film in 2005.
With its sullen themes and easily despised central character, “Forty Shades of Blue” might not be for everyone, but it is Torn at his best.
Torn appeared in nearly 200 movies and television shows during a career that spanned more than six decades. Yet he earned only a single Oscar nomination. That came for his portrayal of Marsh Turner in the 1983 film “Cross Creek.”
“Cross Creek” is what we would now refer to as a biopic. It tells the story of “The Yearling” author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings as she drops out of society life in the 1920s to move to an orange grove in Florida and work on a novel.
Torn’s Marsh Turner is a grizzled, hard-drinking but kindly man who bonds with Rawlings (Mary Steenburgen). It’s difficult to talk more about his character without spoiling the plot of the film or Rawlings’ novel which was based on her interactions with the Turner family. But Torn’s performance is masterful and worthy of an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Ultimately, that year he faced stiff competition and lost to Jack Nicholson for his portrayal of Garrett Breedlove in “Terms of Endearment” based on the novel by fellow Texan Larry McMurtry.
Coincidently, the 1984 Oscars highlighted Texas as a filmmaking powerhouse. McMurtry’s “Terms of Endearment” took home five Oscars including Best Picture. Robert Duval won Best Actor that year for his role in “Tender Mercies” by Horton Foote — another Texan. That film was shot on location in Waxahachie.
The Larry Sanders Show
Most of Torn’s acting accolades came on the small screen where he played the bombastic producer Artie on Garry Shandling’s “The Lady Sanders Show,” a satire of late-night talk shows. The show aired for six seasons in the 1990s, and Torn earned Emmy nominations annually for the duration of the series. He finally won the award in 1996.
Though Shandling is the star of the show, Torn steals nearly every scene he’s in. As Variety writer Daniel D’Addario pointed out this week, the performance highlighted “Torn’s unusual blend of toughness and tender sentimentality, a turn that was often profane as it was unexpectedly moving.”
“The Larry Sanders Show” paved the way for comedies such as “The Office,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “30 Rock,” on which Torn also appeared in somewhat of an homage to his portrayal of Artie.
It’s impossible to talk about Torn without bringing up Norman Mailer’s “Maidstone.”
While making the underground piece of cinema verite in 1970, Torn cemented his place as one of acting’s bad boys for the next few decades.
Most of this film is utterly forgettable, except the final scene where — and there’s no softer way to put this — Torn actually smashes Mailer in the head with a hammer. They tussle and fight — for real — on the ground, two sweaty, hairy, hulking masses of humanity. Mailer bites Torn’s ear. At one point Torn has his hands firmly grasped around Mailer’s throat. A lot of people probably wanted to choke out Norman Mailer, but Rip Torn actually had the chance.
The fight is broken up when Mailer’s wife comes over screaming at Torn, and two crew members pull him off the author and screenwriter whose temple is streaked with blood.
Both men were heavy drinkers and liked to fight. Mailer famously headbutted Gore Vidal during an appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show.” Because both were brutes at times, it’s hard to tell how and when their staged altercation turned into actual savagery.
The film isn’t very good, but the fight scene is a memorable moment from a largely bland plot about Mailer’s character running for president and fighting — sometimes figuratively and others literally — every person who stands in his way.
Josh Edwards is managing editor of The Daily Sentinel and occasionally writes arts and entertainment criticism. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.