A celebrated actor of stage and screen, Rip Torn was certainly a unique performer, to say the least with a controversial history of personal struggles with substance abuse and anger issues and a collection of memorable characters in his filmography that made him a cult favorite over the years. The world said goodbye to this eccentric actor, comedian, and voice artist on July 9, 2019 at the age of 88 and while he wasn’t always the centerpiece of the films he chose to be a part of he was often a scene-stealer at the best of times. Today we take a look back at the life and history of this celebrated comedian, Academy Award nominee, and Emmy winner one last time. This is In Memoriam: Rip Torn.
Born Elmore Rual Torn, Jr. in Temple, Texas in February of 1931, Torn’s stage name “Rip” is a family tradition in the Torn bloodline, a nickname passed down through generations. A graduate of Taylor High School in Taylor, Texas, Torn joined the Texas A&M University Corps of Cadets in college and graduated the University of Texas after studying acting and the works of Shakespeare under professor B. Iden Payne, himself an actor and respected theater professional. Acting seemed to run in Torn’s family. His mother, Thelma Mary Torn, was an aunt of Sissy Spacek making she and Torn cousins by blood. Torn would play a big role in Spacek’s own career. After graduating Torn entered the United States Army where he served in the Military Police. He would later move to Hollywood where he found his big break in the 1950s.
In 1956 he appeared in his first film, “Baby Doll”. He decided to commit more to his acting craft by studying at the Actors Studio in New York City where he excelled as a stage actor. Among his many stage credits was the original production of the Tennessee Williams’ classic “Sweet Bird of Youth” in 1959 for which he received his first major award nomination for a Tony Award. Torn appeared in three more films in the 50s, “A Face in the Crowd”, “Time Limit”, and “Pork Chop Hill”, while also continuing his stage career on Broadway. He also dabbled in several television shows during the 50s, but it was the 60s that truly paved the way for his successful future in cinema. Torn took on the role of Judas, the man who betrayed Jesus, in 1961’s “King of Kings” while also appearing in several television programs like “Channing” and “Breaking Point” over the first five years of the 60s. He also appeared in two major Broadway productions, “Strange Interlude” and “Blues for Mister Charlie” before 1965. In the second half of the 60s he appeared in nine films including “The Cincinnati Kid”, “You’re a Big Boy Now”, “Beach Red”, “Coming Apart” and “Tropic of Cancer”. However, it’s a role Torn didn’t take that was possibly his most famous contribution to the 60s. The role of George Hanson in “Easy Rider” was famously written with Torn in mind, but a reported feud between Torn and co-star Dennis Hopper caused him to leave the project paving the way for Jack Nicholson to take the part that would prove to be a career-defining role. Torn’s reputation as an actor continued to grow in the 70s where he earned critical praise as a country singer in the film “Payday” and starred alongside David Bowie in “The Man Who Fell to Earth. By the end of the 70s, Torn added 12 theatrical films to his growing filmography, yet his most iconic and praised performances were still to come.
In 1983 Torn starred alongside Mary Steenburgen in “Cross Creek” which earned him his one and only Academy Award nomination as a supporting actor. The 80s provided more exposure for Torn as he appeared in features like “Airplane II: The Sequel”, “Flashpoint”, “Summer Rental”, Extreme Prejudice”, and “The Beastmaster”. This decade also saw Torn direct his first feature film, “The Telephone”, which sparked a rivalry with star Whoopi Goldberg over creative differences. Torn would go on to create his own version of the movie that appeared at the Sundance Film Festival while the competing studio version was considered inferior and received poor reviews. Torn remained active as an actor throughout the early 90s appearing in films like “Dolly Dearest”, “Robocop 3” and “Where the River Flows North”. He also enjoyed a successful stint on the Larry Sander Show from 1992 through 1998, earning him an American Comedy Award in the process as well as an Emmy Award. Furthermore, Torn ended a 13 year hiatus from Broadway in 1993 performing in “Anna Christie” before making his final Broadway appearance in the 1997 production of “The Young Man from Atlanta”. While Torn had established himself firmly as a mainstay in Hollywood by 1995, the rest of his career in the late-90s and early 2000s provided the roles that made him an unquestionable household name that most know him for still today.
In 1997 Torn was featured in the science fiction classic “Men in Black” where he played Zed, the leader of the MiB. The role earned him a Saturn Award nomination and brought his popularity in pop culture to new heights. That same year he became part of the Disney canon providing the voice of Zeus in “Hercules”. Torn served as part of the cast of one of the most notoriously bad movies in history playing the dad in 2001’s “Freddie Got Fingered” which earned him his only Golden Raspberry Award nomination. Torn reprised the role of Zed in 2002’s “Men in Black II” and went on to be featured in eight other movies from 1997 through 2004. It was in that year that Torn debuted possibly his most memorable and iconic character on the big screen in the cult classic “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story”. Torn played the wrench-throwing coach Patches O’Houlihan coining phrases like “if you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball” that solidified his place as a pop culture icon. From 2005 through his final big screen appearance in 2013 Torn was a part of 19 more features including an uncredited cameo in “Men in Black 3” in 2012. His final role was in “Johnny Kid” the following year. His final acting gig was as the voice of M in an episode of “TripTank” in 2016.
Beyond his acting career, Torn was known for having a difficult personal life. He married three times, first to actress Ann Wedgeworth with whom he had a daughter, then to Geraldine Page which whom he conceived actress Angelica Page, and finally to Amy Wright in 1989 with whom he remained until his death. Behind the scenes, Torn was known for on-set conflicts and his struggles with alcoholism. He was open about his issues with anger in interviews, often working this disorder into his characters, and was even known for violence on set. In 1970 he struck director and star Norman Mailer with a hammer while filming Maidstone. Torn found himself at the wrong end of accusations from Dennis Hopper in 1994 and filed a defamation lawsuit against the actor after Hopper claimed that Torn had pulled a knife on him while working on “Easy Rider”. Torn took the case to court and won. His violent tendencies also bled into his struggles with substance abuse. In one of the most infamous moments of his career, Torn was cited by the Connecticut State Police in a break-in at the Litchfield Bancorp branch office in Lakeville, Connecticut in January of 2010. Torn was a resident of the area at the time and claimed he believed the bank was his home. Torn was intoxicated and possessed a firearm during the break-in eventually leading him to seek help with alcoholism and substance abuse in exchange for light sentencing in court.
While Rip Torn may have had his fair share of personal struggles, there’s no denying he was a true acting legend in his own right. A recipient of an Emmy, American Comedy Award, and nominations for Satellite Awards and an Academy Award, it’s safe to say he put his God-given talent to good use. Some will remember him as a minor actor in iconic films spanning the 50s, 60, 70s and 80s while others will remember his comedic style and his unique brand of humor or his legacy on Broadway. Even still, others will remember him for his later roles in “Men in Black” and “Dodgeball” that made him both a household name and a pop culture sensation. Regardless, Rip Torn grew from a Shakespearean inspired performer and Broadway regular to a Hollywood star with few equals who rose above his notoriously bad attitude and anger issues to become a respected and beloved performer on the big screen. To him, I say rest in peace Patches and thank you for the laughs.