Remembering Rip Torn – The Chief of Men in Black
Born Elmore Rual Torn Jr on February 6th 1931 to parents Elmore Rual Torn Sr. and Thelma Mary Torn (nee Spacek) in Temple, Texas USA. His Mother was Aunt to the actress Sissy Spacek. The nickname “Rip” is a family tradition among men in the Torn family, a family of German, Austrian and Czech/Moravian ancestry.
After graduating from the University of Texas, where he studied acting, he served in the Military Police in the United States Army.
Torn made his debut in Hollywood in the 1956 movie Baby Doll. He then studied at the Actors Studio in New York and became a prolific stage actor. He appeared in the original cast of the Tennessee Williams’ play Sweet Bird of Youth and reprised the role in both film and television adaptations. It was at the Actors Studio that he helped his cousin Sissy enrol to become a leading lady in the entertainment business.
All through the 60’s, Torn played various roles in television whilst also having an illustrious film career. Torn co-starred in Pork Chop Hill alongside Gregory Peck, he had roles in various late 50’s television series such as The Restless Gun, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and had an uncredited role in A face in The Crowd. 1961 saw him play Judas is King of Kings, in 1965 he played Slade in The Cincinnati Kid. The part of Hanson in Easy Rider was written for Torn but he withdrew from the project before it started after he had a disagreement with the co-director, Dennis Hopper at a New York restaurant.
During the 70’s Torn’s career was starting to attract award nominations and rave reviews, his performance in Payday and Jinxed! attracted critical acclaim. he played an airline executive in Airplane II, a Sherriff in Flashpoint and he was nominated for a CableACE Award for his portrayal of Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1984.
In 1988, Torn debuted as a director with the film The Telephone. Written with Robin Williams in mind, he turned it down and Whoopi Goldberg expressed a strong interest. During initial production, Torn had to repeatedly request to Goldberg that she stick to the script as she started to digress and improvise. A dispute with the studio, who backed Goldberg, generated a Torn version and a Studio version, which ended in poor reviews for both versions.
The 90’s saw Torn in more television and film roles, Columbo, By Dawn’s Early Light, Defending Your Life, Where the Rivers Flow North, RoboCop 3, Down Periscope.
His most well-known recent roles are that of Zed in the Men in Black series of films, Patches O’Houlihan in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and Zeus in Disney’s Hercules.
Torn’s stage career was just as prolific as his screen career, he appeared in ten Broadway productions and directed one and gained a Theatre World award and a Tony nomination. His Off-Broadway career flourished, and he won an Obie Award for a distinguished performance in 1967 in the play The Deer Park.
Controversy blotted some of Torn’s career with on-set difficulties, whilst filming Maidstone, Torn attacked the director, and star, Norman Mailer with a hammer, they fought to the ground and the fight was broken up by cast and crew, the camera was rolling at the time and the fight scene, although edited, was included in the film. Torn was reportedly outraged by Mailer’s direction.
In 1994, he filed for damages againt Dennis Hopper who stated in an interview that Torn had pulled a knife on him during an argument on-set during filming of Easy Rider. Hopper lost the case, and the appeal and was ordered to pay $475,000 compensatory damages and again when the appeal failed.
Torn had legal troubles in 2010 when he drunkenly broke into a Bancorp office in his resident town of Lakeville thinking it was his home. He was charged with various charges and released on $100,000 bail. As a condition of his release, he had to be evaluated for substance abuse and at his trial he was denied special probation and was given a suspended jail sentence and three years’ probation for criminal trespass, criminal mischief and possession of a firearm.
Torn was married three times, first to Ann Wedgeworth from 1956 to 1961, they had a daughter Danae Torn. In 1963 he married the actress Geraldine Page until her death in 1987, they had a daughter, actress Angelica Page, twin sons Tony and Jon (tony and actor, Jon an associate professor of Electronic Media. And in 1989 he married actress Amy Wright and they had two girls, Katie and Claire Torn.
Rip Torn died at his home in Lakeville, Connecticut on July 9th 2019, he was 88.