Rip Torn — whose seven-decade acting career spanned stage, film, TV, and voice roles — has died, a rep for the actor confirmed in a statement to Rolling Stone. Torn died at his home in Lakeville, Connecticut, on Tuesday afternoon. He was 88.
Born Elmore Rual Torn Jr. in Temple, Texas, on February 6th, 1931, he graduated from the University of Texas, where he studied acting before serving in the Army.
Torn moved to Hollywood, where he scored his first major acting role in a 1956 film, Baby Doll. He later moved to New York and attended the famed Actors Studio, which led to a number of stage roles. He appeared on Broadway 10 times, beginning with his debut in Elia Kazan’s production of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth in 1959, where he starred alongside Paul Newman and Geraldine Page, whom Torn was later married to until her death in 1987. Torn was nominated for a Tony Award for his role as Tom Junior in the production and won a Theater World Award.
Torn starred in numerous films, including 1965’s The Cincinnati Kid, 1973’s Payday, 1976’s David Bowie-starring sci-fi film The Man Who Fell to Earth, and 1983’s Cross Creek, for which he garnered an Oscar nomination. His breakout comedic role came by way of portraying defense attorney Bob Diamond in Albert Brooks’ 1991 film Defending Your Life. “R.I.P Rip Torn. He was so great in Defending Your Life. I’ll miss you Rip, you were a true original,” Brooks tweeted Tuesday. Torn also starred alongside Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson in the 1984 comedy Songwriter.
In the Nineties, Torn took on his most enduring role as talk-show producer Artie on The Larry Sanders Show, providing whip-smart wit as a foil to Garry Shandling’s titular late-night host. Torn was nominated for six consecutive Emmys for his role, winning for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 1996.
The high-profile portrayal led to several late-career roles, featuring appearances on TV shows that included 30 Rock (as Alec Baldwin’s CEO boss) and Will & Grace, along with roles in the films Men in Black and Wonder Boys and cult comedies like DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story and Freddy Got Fingered. His film career encompassed nearly 200 roles. Torn also directed 1988’s The Telephone, starring Whoopi Goldberg and penned by singer Harry Nilsson and Torn’s longtime friend Terry Southern.
As bold as his characters were onscreen, Torn was perhaps an even bigger personality off-camera: He infamously lost a role in 1969’s Easy Rider after allegedly pulling a knife on the film’s director, Dennis Hopper; that career-making part instead went to Jack Nicholson. Years later, Torn sued Hopper for defamation and was awarded $475,000, but the Easy Rider incident stifled Torn’s acting career. “I wouldn’t say that I was blacklisted, but the word got around that I was difficult and unreliable,” Torn told the Associated Press in 1984. “Unreliable! In all my years in the theater I have never missed a performance.”
An improvised fight scene in author-director Norman Mailer’s Maidstone blurred the lines between cinema and reality, with Torn attacking Mailer with a tack hammer and the author biting off a piece of the actor’s ear. “Well, you can’t blame Norman for that, because he went to war with an ol’ Texas regiment,” Torn told David Letterman in 1983. “We’re still good friends.” In 2010, a drunk Torn was arrested for breaking into a Connecticut bank while carrying a loaded gun; the actor said he mistook the bank for his own house.
In the statement announcing Torn’s death, his family said that the “secret ingredient” to the actor’s success was to “play drama as comedy and comedy as drama.”