As another year comes to a close, I wanted to take the month of December to remember some of the amazing television stars who passed away in 2019. In previous blogs during 2019, we discussed Tim Conway, Katherine Helmond, Peggy Lipton, and Peter Tork. We’ll be learning about Valerie Harper’s career in January.
We start our tributes with Rip Torn, born Elmore Rual Torn Jr. in 1931 in Texas. Rip was a name that many men in his family used. Torn had an unlikely acting career path. He attended Texas A&M and the University of Texas where he majored in animal husbandry. During his time there, he did study acting with Shakespeare professor B. Iden Payne. His not-well-thought-out plan was to hitchhike to Hollywood, become a movie star, and retire after making enough money to buy a ranch. Although it was a dubious beginning, he would go on to a sixty-year career in the acting profession.
He made his movie debut in 1956 in Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll. In the same year, he married Ann Wedgeworth. They would remain married for five years until he divorced her to marry Geraldine Page. He and Geraldine were married until her death in 1987.
He worked a number of odd jobs and took several television roles. When he got serious about his acting, he moved to New York City to study under Lee Strasberg. Later a relative of his, cousin Sissy Spacek, would also study under Strasberg. Along with acting, Torn studied dance with Martha Graham during his early years in New York. He made his Broadway debut in “Sweet Bird of Youth” in 1959 and was nominated for a Tony. He would continue to weave in and out of Broadway and Off-Broadway for the rest of his career. He didn’t limit himself, continuing to star in Broadway, movies, and television, winning two Obie awards for “The Deer Park” and “The Beard.” He later opened a stage company.
Torn never lacked work. His roles varied as lead, second lead, supporting, and character. He took on a variety of roles in his movies. In 1965 he was Slade in The Cincinnati Kid with Steve McQueen. The part of George Hanson in Easy Rider, which was released in 1969, was written for Torn by Terry Southern. However, Rip did not get along with Dennis Hopper and withdrew from the film. Jack Nicholson took over the role, propelling his rise to stardom. Rip portrayed a country and western singer in Payday in 1972. In 1976, he joined David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. He was a politician 1979 in The Seduction of Joe Tynan with Alan Alda and Meryl Streep. In 1983 he was nominated for a best supporting Oscar for Cross Creek, the true story of how Marjorie Rawlings wrote The Yearling.
Most of his performances were in dramas, but he could also tackle comedy. Torn accepted the role of airline executive in Airplane II: The Sequel (1982) and as a tourist with John Candy in Summer Rental (1985).
In 1989 Torn would marry Amy Wright whom he was married to until his death this year when he passed away in July.
Many younger fans associate him with his role in Men in Black and Men in Black II in the late ‘90s and early 2000s where he worked with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.
Although Torn may be best known for his movie roles, he had a long and prolific television career. In the 1950s he appeared on the small screen eleven times, primarily in the drama and theater series so prevalent at that time. The 1960s found him in twenty series including The Man from UNCLE, Dr. Kildare, and Rawhide. In the 1970s, his television roles were primarily in crime shows with one appearance on Bonanza. While he did not appear in any series in the 1980s, he did show up in many made-for-tv-movies. During his career, he would appear in 32 tv movies and about a dozen mini-series.
As Artie, the television producer on The Larry Sanders Show, he was nominated six years in a row (1992-1998) for an Emmy, winning in 1996.In addition to his time on The Larry Sanders Show, he also accepted eight other tv roles in the 1990s, including an appearance on Columbo. After 2000, he would show up on television six more times, including a recurring role on Will and Grace. He had a recurring role on 30 Rock as the Chief Executive Officer of General Electric from 2007-2009.
Unfortunately, he got into some trouble in 2010. He claimed that got him fired from 30 Rock, but no one at the show ever confirmed that. He was arrested after breaking into a bank office close to his residence. He was charged with carrying a firearm without a permit, carrying a firearm while intoxicated, trespassing, and criminal mischief. He said he broke in thinking the bank was his home. His lawyer told the judge Torn had a severe alcohol abuse problem. Torn was given a $100,000 bail and began treatment. One article I read cited that Torn was arrested three times for driving while intoxicated before this arrest.
I don’t know if he ever bought that ranch, but he earned the respect of generations of actors. He chose roles that interested him and didn’t worry if his part was the lead actor or a secondary role. He was not focused on whether a part would lead to a financial payday, choosing roles that were interesting or challenging to play. RIP Rip.