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Rip Torn: TV and film actor who specialised in lovable baddies

Marcus Williamson

Rip Torn was the character actor and voice artist best known for The Larry Sanders Show and Men in Black, but who was always worth watching, whatever the character. In more than 60 years he took on nearly 200 parts on both big and small screens, many of them minor roles.

Torn, who has died aged 88, excelled in the character of the baddie, so adeptly turning a criminal or reprobate into a likeable and oftentimes amusing figure. His secret, he once said, was to “play drama as comedy and comedy as drama”.

He was born Elmore Rual Torn Jr in 1931 in Temple, Texas to Thelma Spacek and Elmore Torn Sr. Graduating from Taylor High School, he studied animal husbandry at the University of Texas and sought to run his own ranch. Knowing that he would need money to do that, he hitch-hiked to Hollywood, with the aspiration of getting into acting as a way to find riches.

When the search for roles Hollywood did not work out as he had first hoped, he journeyed east to New York. Torn found his first (and uncredited) role playing a dentist in the black-comedy drama, Baby Doll (1956), directed by Elia Kazan. In theatre he debuted in Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth in 1959 on Broadway, as Tom Jr, gaining a Theatre World Award for that role.

Throughout his career Torn had campaigned to improve racial integration in theatre and film. He was present at an important meeting with attorney general Robert F “Bobby” Kennedy in 1963, at the invitation of the playwright and activist James Baldwin, to help promote the cause. Torn appeared in Baldwin’s play Blues for Mr Charlie the following year.

In Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) Torn is Dr Nathan Bryce, a chemistry teacher-turned engineer. His is a pivotal role for the film’s storyline, as he shifts from confidante to traitor, exposing the billionaire Thomas Jerome Newton (played by David Bowie) as an extraterrestial.

Despite some early successes, Torn had lived through a fairly barren period in the Seventies, arising from a perception that he was difficult to work with. In a 1984 interview he noted: “I wouldn’t say that I was blacklisted, but the word got around that I was difficult and unreliable. Unreliable! In all my years in the theatre, I have never missed a performance.”

Director Nicholas Ray, and Torn as Judas Iscariot, during the filming of ‘King of Kings’ in 1961 (Getty)

He later tried his hand at film directing, in The Telephone (1988), starring Whoopi Goldberg as an out-of-work actor who makes prank phone calls. It debuted at Sundance and was roundly panned by the critics. Goldberg sued to prevent its wider release but failed and found herself being nominated for the infamous Golden Raspberry Worst Actress award.

Torn’s best known role was in The Larry Sanders Show, running for six seasons from 1992 to 1998 on the HBO Cable network and late night on BBC2 in the UK. In what was an improbable premise for a TV programme – a sitcom about a fictional late-night talk show – Torn played the role of Arthur, the show’s ethically challenged producer. That performance gained him Emmy Award nominations from 1993 to 1995, culminating an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, in 1996.

Earlier recognition had come in the form of an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Cross Creek (1983), playing the gun-toting, hard-drinking hunter Marsh Turner, alongside Mary Steenburgen as the author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. In the box-office smash Men in Black (1997) and its sequel, Torn was Chief Zed, head of the Men in Black, a role for which he was nominated for a Satellite Award for Best Supporting Actor.

The alcohol-fuelled character on film had on at least two occasions spilled over into real life. In 2008 he was arrested for drink-driving. Then, two years later, he was found by police at a bank in Connecticut and charged with criminal trespass, carrying a gun while intoxicated and burglary. He said that he had broken in, believing that it was his home and was bailed on condition that he avoided alcohol.

Tom Green, who appeared alongside Torn in Freddy Got Fingered (2001) said: “Rip was a class act. He was an incredible actor. One of the greats. A true legend. I am proud to have worked with him and to have known him.”

Torn is survived by his third wife, Amy Wright, four daughters and twin sons.

Elmore Rual ‘Rip’ Torn Jr, actor, born 6 February 1931, died 9 July 2019