NEW YORK (Reuters) - Emmy winner Rip Torn, whose tempestuous nature made him a compelling character actor on the screen and stage but sometimes caused him trouble on the set and in private life, died on Tuesday at the age of 88, media reports said.
Torn, whose late-career resurgence included a key role on US television’s “The Larry Sanders Show” and in the movies “Men in Black” and “Dodgeball,” died peacefully at his home, his family told the Hollywood Reporter and other media.
The cause was not disclosed, but he was surrounded by his wife, actress Amy Wright, known for “Stardust Memories” and “The Accidental Tourist”, and his daughters, media reports said.
Neither his family nor agent were immediately available for comment late Tuesday.
Torn showed great range in his career but with a crooked grin, gruff voice and devilish glint in his eyes, he was especially well suited to playing bad boys and unpredictable characters.
He often made headlines because of his volatility. He blamed his dismissal from a production of “Macbeth” on “friends” of the administration of President Richard Nixon, who Torn would later portray in the television mini-series “Blind Ambition.”
Later in life came alcohol-related incidents, including an arrest in 2010 for breaking into a closed bank that he had mistaken for his home in Salisbury, Connecticut.
“I have certain flaws in my makeup. Something called rise-ability,” Torn told writer Studs Terkel for “Working,” a 1974 book about people and their jobs. “I get angry easily. I get saddened by things easily.”
Torn said he went into acting as a way to use those emotions to his benefit.
“Rip has an unabashed masculine drive. You can’t act that,” playwright Horton Foote, who cast Torn in his play “The Young Man From Atlanta” and also worked frequently with Torn’s second wife, Geraldine Page, told the New York Times.
Torn was born in Temple, Texas, on Feb. 6, 1931, and grew up with aspirations of being a farmer before discovering drama at the University of Texas. After graduating, he and first wife Ann Wedgeworth moved to New York in the late 1950s.
Torn, who studied at Lee Strasberg’s legendary Actors Studio, found steady stage and television work. His early movies included “King of Kings” (1961), “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965) and the war films “Pork Chop Hill” (1959) and “Beach Red” (1967).
Torn was a good fit for Tennessee Williams’ plays, such as portraying the menacing Tom Jr. in “Sweet Bird of Youth,” which earned him a Tony nomination. He reprised the role in a movie in 1962 and also played Big Daddy in a 1984 TV production of Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
Much of Torn’s work in the 1970s and ‘80s consisted of one-off TV roles and a few little-seen experimental films. Among the exceptions were “Cross Creek,” a 1984 film that earned him an Academy Award nomination, and 1972’s “Payday” in which he starred as a hard-drinking, womanizing country singer.
Torn blamed the career slowdown partly on his political views, including criticism of the Vietnam War, but he came out of it in the ‘90s, boosted by his part in Albert Brooks’ much-praised life-after-death comedy “Defending Your Life.”
From 1992 through 1998 he had the scene-stealing role of Artie, the all-knowing producer on “The Larry Sanders Show,” Garry Shandling’s satiric take on late-night television. Torn won an Emmy in 1996 and was nominated five other times for the role.
Torn also played Zed, the alien-busting boss in two “Men in Black” movies, and was Patches O’Houlihan, the snarling wheelchair-bound burn-out case whose idea of training his charges in the 2004 comedy “Dodgeball” was to throw tools at them (“If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball!”).
A run on the NBC sitcom “30 Rock” brought Torn another Emmy nomination in 2008.
Torn gained notoriety for a role he did not get in the classic hippie-era movie “Easy Rider.” Novelist-screenwriter Terry Southern wanted Torn to play a disenchanted lawyer in the film (the part eventually went to Jack Nicholson). But when they had dinner with stars Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda to discuss it in 1967, an altercation broke out.
Hopper would say Torn threatened him with a knife but Torn contended it was Hopper who pulled the knife and that he had taken it away from Hopper and turned it on him.
Torn said Hopper’s account made him look unstable and hurt his career. When Hopper repeated the story on the “Tonight” show in 1994, Torn sued and won $475,000 in damages.
Torn was a co-star in one of the most remarkable scenes in movie history - a real fight with friend Norman Mailer in “Maidstone,” a 1970 experimental film the writer was directing and starring in.
Mailer played a presidential candidate who feared assassination and Torn his half brother in the highly improvised film, which was to conclude with the killing of the candidate. For the final scene, Torn went up to Mailer unannounced and struck him on the head with a hammer, drawing blood.
In the ensuing grappling, Mailer bit Torn’s ear and Torn ended up on top of him, choking the writer until two men and Mailer’s wife, who was screaming and slapping Torn, separated them - all while the cameras rolled.
Torn, who would end up in a hospital after his bitten ear became infected, insisted Mailer knew what was coming and that he had used the hammer’s handle to hit him.
Torn went into entertainment with a name that many assumed was a corny, ill-conceived stage name. For a while he carried his passport with him to show skeptics that his name really was Elmore Rual Torn Jr. and told them that Rip was a long-standing nickname for the men in his family.
“If anything, my name has made me work harder,” he told the New York Times. “Some people just seem to take instant umbrage at it.”
Torn, who helped his cousin Sissy Spacek start her movie career, had six children in his marriages to Wedgeworth, Page and actress Amy Wright.