Rip Torn, who played Artie on ‘The Larry Sanders Show,’ dies at 88

Dennis Mclellan
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Rip Torn, the maverick actor who received a late-in-life career boost — and won an Emmy Award — playing the caustic talk-show producer on Garry Shandling’s 1990s hit HBO comedy series “The Larry Sanders Show,” has died, according to the Associated Press. He was 88.

Torn’s off-screen drinking and latter-day alcohol-related arrests began to overshadow his accomplishments as an actor.

Texas-born and Actors Studio-trained, Torn was a “slender, dark, intense young actor” — as the Los Angeles Times’ former TV columnist, Cecil Smith, described him — when he surfaced in the late 1950s on TV dramatic showcases such as “Playhouse 90,” in films and on Broadway.

He received a Tony Award nomination for best featured actor in a play for his role as Tom Junior in the original 1959 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth,” with Paul Newman and Torn’s future wife, Geraldine Page, in the leads.

Torn, who reprised his role in the 1962 movie version, appeared in more than 90 films, including “King of Kings,” “The Cincinnati Kid,” “Pay Day,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “Defending Your Life,” “Men in Black,” “Dodgeball” and “Marie Antoinette.” He also provided the voice of Zeus in Disney’s animated “Hercules.”

Torn’s role as Marsh Turner, a 1920s backwoods Florida family man, in the 1983 film “Cross Creek” earned him an Academy Award nomination for best actor in a supporting role.

On television, he played President Richard M. Nixon in the 1979 miniseries “Blind Ambition” and Ulysses S. Grant in the 1982 miniseries “The Blue and the Gray.” And in 1985, he received an Emmy nomination for his role as the prosecutor in the miniseries “The Atlanta Child Murders.”

‘Larry Sanders’: His performance as an after-life defense lawyer in Albert Brooks’ 1991 film comedy “Defending Your Life” led Shandling to cast him as the TV producer in “The Larry Sanders Show,” which ran on HBO from 1992 to 1998.

Torn’s Arthur character has been described as flinty, crafty, intense, tough-as-nails, cajoling, fiercely protective, fiercely loyal and slightly mad.

“The saving grace is (Arthur) loves talent, particularly his star,” Torn told The Chicago Tribune in 1997. “Garry once said, ‘How do you see this role?’ I said, ‘As Larry’s pit bull.’ He said, ‘Ahhh, I don’t think I like that at all.’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll be your wolverine!’ He didn’t know what that meant. That’s even worse than a pit bull!”

Torn said he had to play Arthur with that mentality because “in showbiz, producers legendarily have to be not only two-faced but 10- or 12-faced people to get things done. And (they are) going to tell anybody what is needed to get the job done.”

The role earned him six consecutive Emmy nominations for outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series, and he took home the Emmy in 1996.

Volatile: As an actor, Torn early on earned a reputation for being volatile and difficult.

“David Susskind (the producer) once told me that I didn’t work more often because of my temperament,” Torn said in a 1976 interview in The Times. “But that’s why I didn’t become a banker!”

One role Torn famously did not play was George Hanson, the alcoholic ACLU lawyer in director Dennis Hopper’s 1969 counter-culture classic “Easy Rider.”

Torn was set to play the part that launched Jack Nicholson to stardom.

But, Torn told Playboy magazine in 1993, he was told he’d be working for minimum, about $400 a week at the time. Because he had a tax lien against his bank account for $3,500, he said, “I asked them for $3,500 for six weeks’ work and never heard from them.”

Torn’s peripheral connection to “Easy Rider” surfaced three decades later when Hopper, during a 1994 appearance on “The Tonight Show,” said that Torn was turned down for the role of Hanson because he had pulled a knife on Hopper during an argument.

But, according to Torn, who filed a suit against Hopper for slander, it was Hopper who had pulled a knife on him. Torn won a $475,000 judgment against Hopper, to which another $475,000 in punitive damages were later added.

Torn’s reputation wasn’t helped by a notorious scene in the Norman Mailer-directed, improvisational 1970 film “Maidstone,” in which Mailer plays a movie director who is being considered as a presidential candidate: Torn improvised an attack on Mailer with a hammer to his head. In the ensuing scuffle, Mailer bit Torn’s ear.

When the attack happened, Mailer later said, he couldn’t tell whether Torn was serious or only acting.

Arrests: A heavy drinker, Torn had a few arrests for drunken driving in his later years.

But he wasn’t driving when he had his most notorious encounter with the law. In January 2010, Connecticut State Police found a highly intoxicated Torn inside a closed bank in Salisbury, where he had a home.

Torn, who had a loaded gun in his pocket, had broken a rear window to enter the bank, which resembles a house. (He reportedly told police he thought he was home.) After spending the weekend in jail, he was released on $100,000 bail and entered an alcohol rehabilitation program.

“My father is a brilliant man, but so much has been wasted,” Torn’s actress daughter Angelica Page told The New York Post. “It’s heartbreaking. But maybe now he’s finally going to have to face the truth about himself and his drinking.”

In December 2010, Torn pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment, criminal trespass, criminal mischief and the illegal carrying of a firearm. He was given a 21/2-year suspended sentence and three years probation.

Early life: He was born Elmore Rual Torn Jr. on Feb. 6, 1931 in Temple, Texas. (Rip was a family nickname shared by his father and an uncle.)

Torn, who later helped cousin Sissy Spacek launch her acting career in New York, attended Texas A&M before transferring to the University of Texas, where he studied acting under renowned British theater director and teacher B. Iden Payne.

After a stint in the Army as a first lieutenant in the military police, Torn and his first wife, actress Ann Wedgeworth, moved to New York.

“My mother said, ‘Promise me you won’t wind up in the gutter,’” Torn often recalled. “‘But Mom,’ I told her, ‘that’s where you start.’”

Torn and Wedgeworth, with whom he had a daughter, Danae, were divorced. He and the Oscar-winning Page, who died in 1987, had three children, Angelica and twins Anthony and Jonathan. He and his third wife, actress Amy Wright, had two children, Katie and Claire.