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Flashback: Rip Torn, Willie Nelson Wheel and Deal in 1984’s ‘Songwriter’

Torn, who died Tuesday at 88, also played troublesome country troubadour Maury Dann in 1972’s ‘Payday’

With the hundreds of film and television roles actor Rip Torn played throughout his career, some are so memorable and well-known (The Larry Sanders Show’s Arthur, for instance) that many others are relegated to “I forgot he was in that one” territory. Born Elmore Rual Torn Jr. in Temple, Texas, in 1931, Rip Torn died Tuesday in Lakeville, Connecticut, at age 88.

Among Torn’s many roles, and indeed, in his personal life, are numerous connections to country music. Coal Miner’s Daughter Oscar winner Sissy Spacek was his first cousin, and Torn’s first wife, actress Ann Wedgeworth, would go on to play Patsy Cline’s mother, Hilda Hensley, in the 1985 biopic Sweet Dreams. Torn would inhabit the roles of both country-music artist and manager with two films a decade apart, one in which he was the lead and another as supporting character to two country icons: Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson.

In 1984’s Songwriter, Torn plays Dino McLeish, the slick and sleazy manager of Kristofferson’s character, country star Blackie Buck, who is best friend to songwriter Doc Jenkins, played by Nelson. In the above scene from the film, Nelson and Torn are joined by Lesley Ann Warren as Gilda, an aspiring, neurotic singer also being managed by Dino. The hilarious exchange between Doc and Dino is, quite literally, a bit of fast-talking wheeling-and-dealing as the two negotiate Gilda’s musical future. It’s a stellar bit of acting from Torn and Nelson, especially, with their tough-as-leather Texas roots informing both characters. (There’s a mostly unrelated scene in the clip, in which Doc, wearing a borrowed suit and brandishing a vacuum cleaner, visits his ex-wife, singer Honey Carder, who is mentioned briefly by the self-doubting Gilda in the previous scene.)

A decade before the underrated Songwriter, Rip Torn took on the role of a hard-living singer who was haggard (in more ways than one) and perhaps a little bit Jones, Cash and Jennings, too. Torn plays mid-level country star Maury Dann in the gritty Payday, a 1973 film that earned rave reviews but would go largely unnoticed at the time.

Featuring the actor drinking, taking pills, brawling, carousing, and singing a handful of songs penned by Shel Silverstein, the film was advertised with the tagline, “If you can’t smoke it, spend it or love it… forget it.” More rambling road picture than glossy biopic, Payday doesn’t shy away from depicting Torn’s shady, manipulative character — and the world of country music — in a less-than-flattering light. Torn’s intense, ultimately heartbreaking performance in Payday won’t elicit the same warm, fuzzy feelings as, say, Robert Duvall’s well-deserved Academy Award-winning turn in the low-key Tender Mercies, but in this, the golden age of the cinematic antihero, Torn’s Maury Dann can be seen as someone way ahead of his time.

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