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Rip Torn of “Men in Black” and “Larry Sanders Show” Passes Away at 88

Nancy Bilyeau
Getty Images
Getty Images

Rip Torn, an actor with a six-decade career in more than 80 films, many television shows, and in 10 Broadway plays, died July 9, 2019, at his home in Lakeville, Connecticut, his representatives said. He was 88.

Onscreen, Torn is best known for the Men in Black franchise,  for the films Cross Creek and Defending Your Life, and and HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show, which brought him six Emmy Award nominations for outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series. He won the award for playing the producer Artie in 1996.

Born Elmore Rual Torn Jr. in Temple, Texas,  a small city north of Austin, he took on the nickname “Rip” after his father and uncle. “It’s like baseball players that were named Woods are called Piney. It’s just a nickname,” Torn told Terry Gross on WHYY’s Fresh Air in 1994. The actress Sissy Spacek was his cousin.

Rip Torn

Rip Torn in 1993. Photo by Alan Light CC by 2.0

He graduated from the University of Texas, studying drama, but served two years in the Army before moving to Los Angeles in the mid-1950s. He made his film debut with an uncredited role in Elia Kazan’s film Baby Doll, before relocating to New York City to study at the Actor’s Studio.

Torn made his Broadway debut in 1959 as part of the original cast of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth as “Tom, Jr.,” a role he would reprise for the feature film and TV movie adaptations. He was nominated for a Tony award in 1960 and received a Theater World award for his performance.

Rip Torn

Rip Torn at the 1994 Emmys. Photo by Alan Light CC by 2.0

Over the years, Torn “developed an unpredictable and stubborn reputation, both on camera and in his personal life,” according to NPR. “He was the kind of performer who won rave reviews for the convincing way he tore doors off hinge,” said a New York Times story.

“Offstage, Torn worked to racially integrate the theater world. He vehemently defended every line, no matter how shocking at the time, of James Baldwin’s unsparingly violent play ‘Blues for Mr. Charlie’ and helped coax Baldwin, who was procrastinating, into finishing it,” the New York Times piece added.

Rip Torn

Rip Torn in 2015. Photo by Rob DiCaterino CC by 2.0

Ultimately, Torn was dismissed from his role in the London production of Baldwin’s play over his “corrosive attitude.”

Torn earned a reputation as an actor’s actor on stage, both Broadway and off-Broadway, as well as on screen. He continued to work in the New York theater despite his demanding TV and movie schedule as both an actor and director. He has won two Obie awards for his work off-Broadway, for Distinguished Performance in Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park (for the 1966-1967 season), and for Distinguished Direction for The Beard (1967-1968).

On “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” actor Dennis Hopper relayed a story about Torn. “Rip and I had a little, um, problem,” Hopper said. At dinner one night, Hopper told Leno that Torn pulled a knife on him at a New York restaurant after Torn found out his role in the film Easy Rider was going to another actor.

A legal feud between Hopper and Torn ensued. It ended with Torn being awarded a defamation settlement after saying Hopper’s Leno appearance skewed how the events really took place. Apparently, the knife-wielding was not one sided. The two, according to court records from the time, went “at each other with a butter knife and a salad fork.”

When asked in 1994 on NPR’s Weekend Edition what he likes most about his role as Artie on the Larry Sanders Show, Torn said it had to be Garry Shandling. But the second best thing? The paycheck.

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“I don’t mind the money. I paid off people who thought I’d forgotten them,” Torn said. “I am not looking around for bill collectors. I’m not, as my father used to say for many years, ‘What’s Rip doing up there?’ He said,’Treading water.'”

Torn’s publicist confirmed that he is survived by his wife, Amy Wright, and four daughters: Danae, Katie, Claire and Angelica Page; and twin sons, Tony and Jon Torn.