Rip Torn Dies; Oscar-Nominated Actor Struggled With Alcoholism

By Paul Gaita 07/12/19

The actor was 88.

Rip Torn
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Actor Rip Torn, a larger-than-life presence in film, on television and stage for more than a half-century, died at his home in Connecticut on July 9.

Though Torn was perhaps best known for comedic roles—he won an Emmy for his turn on The Larry Sanders Show and was an inveterate scene stealer in Albert Brooks' Defending Your Life30 Rock and the Men in Black franchise. But he was also a Tony-nominated stage actor and earned an Oscar nomination as a hard-drinking bayou resident in Cross Creek (1984).

Torn also struggled with alcohol in real life, and earned headlines in the late 2000s for a series of run-ins with the law that led to a suspended jail sentence in 2010.

Born Elmore Rual Torn Jr. in Temple, Texas on February 6, 1931, his unique moniker was a tradition passed down to all the men in his family. He headed west to launch an acting career in Hollywood, but found more success in New York, where he studied under Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, and later helped his cousin, Sissy Spacek, join their ranks.

A connection with director Elia Kazan led to early roles in films like Baby Doll (1956) and the original Broadway run of Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of You, which led to a supporting role in the feature film version in 1962. Torn's co-star, Geraldine Page, would become his second wife, and they remained married until her death in 1987.

Torn eventually settled into character roles, playing intense, complicated figures including Judas in King of Kings (1961) and a selfish country singer in the cult favorite Payday (1973).

He also forged a reputation as a difficult, even volatile actor. He famously assaulted writer-turned-director Norman Mailer with a hammer while filming the experimental drama Maidstone in 1970 (the fight remained in the film), and successfully sued Dennis Hopper in 1998 over claims that he had pulled a knife on the actor during the production of Easy Rider (1968), for which Torn was originally slated in the role played by Jack Nicholson.

Despite his reputation, Torn was in demand as a character actor, and shifted away from heavies to play ornery, avuncular comedic roles in the '90s and early 2000s.

A turn as a heavenly defense attorney in Albert Brooks' Defending Your Life led to his role on Larry Sanders and six consecutive Emmy nominations, including a win in 1996. Torn was soon a staple of film and TV comedies, including an Emmy-nominated recurring role on 30 Rock and memorable appearances as Zed in the Men in Black films, Sofia Coppola's Marie AntoinetteDodgeball: A True Underdog Story and other films.

At the height of his career, Torn's struggles with alcohol became a matter of public record. He was arrested three times between 2004 and 2008 for driving under the influence, and in 2010, broke into a bank branch office in Connecticut while intoxicated.

Charged with carrying a firearm while intoxicated and first-degree burglary, among others, Torn was released after his lawyer told the judge that his client needed treatment for alcohol dependency.

He eventually pled guilty to reckless endangerment, criminal trespass and other charges, and received a two-and-a-half year suspended sentence and three years probation.

Torn returned to sporadic work in independent features, and logged his final role with voice-acting work for the Comedy Central animated series TripTank. At the time of his death, he was 88. 

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.