Rip Torn, who earned a glowing reputation as a versatile actor on both stage and screen, but who never quite shed a less savory one as an inveterate troublemaker, died Tuesday at his home in Lakeville, Connecticut. He was 88.
His publicist, Rick Miramontez, announced the death.
Torn made his reputation as a gifted actor in the works of Tennessee Williams and in roles as diverse as Walt Whitman, Richard Nixon and Judas Iscariot. But no role brought him more fame than that of the bullying producer on “The Larry Sanders Show,” one of the most acclaimed television comedies of the 1990s.
As the gruff Artie on “Larry Sanders,” which starred Garry Shandling as the neurotic star of a late-night talk show and which ran from 1992 to 1998 on HBO, Torn stole practically every scene he was in. Torn’s performance brought him six Emmy Award nominations for outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series. He won in 1996.
Almost 30 years earlier he had received Obie Awards for his off-Broadway work, as an actor in Norman Mailer’s “The Deer Park” (1967) and as the director of Michael McClure’s “The Beard” (1968). But despite the critical accolades he received in the following decades, other awards were elusive.
His reputation for volatility was one possible explanation.
Dennis Hopper told a story on “The Tonight Show” in 1994 about how Torn had pulled a knife on him during an argument in the 1960s. The way Torn remembered it, Hopper had pulled a knife on him, so he sued for defamation. He won.
Torn was arrested on drunken-driving charges several times in his 70s. In 2010, he was arrested after breaking into a Connecticut bank at night with a loaded gun in his possession. Explaining that he had been intoxicated and thought the bank was his house, he pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment, criminal trespass, criminal mischief and illegally carrying a firearm. He was placed on probation.
Elmore Rual Torn Jr. was born Feb. 6, 1931, in Temple, Texas, a small city north of Austin, to Elmore and Thelma (Spacek) Torn. (Actress Sissy Spacek was a cousin of hers.) He inherited the nickname Rip from his father, an economist.
The younger Rip attended what is now Texas A&M University, where he studied agriculture, before transferring to the University of Texas and switching his focus to drama. After graduating, he served in the Army for two years and then moved to New York to study at the Actors Studio.
He played a small, uncredited part in Elia Kazan’s Southern Gothic film “Baby Doll” (1956), written by Williams, and a credited one in “Time Limit,” a 1957 drama starring Richard Widmark as an Army officer accused of treason. He also became a familiar face on television anthology series like “The United States Steel Hour” and “Kraft Theatre.”
His first two Broadway appearances were in Williams plays directed by Kazan. In 1956 he took over the lead male role, Brick, in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” toward the end of its run. Three years later he was in the original cast of “Sweet Bird of Youth.”
Among Torn’s better-known movies were two science-fiction hits. In “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976), he was a scientist who befriends the title character, a space alien played by David Bowie; in “Men in Black” (1997), he headed an organization supervising extraterrestrials who live on Earth. He reprised the role in the 2002 sequel.
Torn’s last roles included a network chief on the sitcom “30 Rock.”
Torn married actress Ann Wedgeworth in 1955. He married Geraldine Page in 1963, two years after he and Wedgeworth divorced. They remained married until her death in 1987, but by then Torn had already begun a long-term relationship with actress Amy Wright.