It’s a cool medium after all

Rip Torn isn’t necessarily proud of the fact, but he can clearly recall a time in the late 1950s when newspaper columnists and film directors would wag a finger in his face and warn, “If you keep on doing TV, you’ll never work in movies anymore.”

Times have changed a little, he admits.

“This summer, I’m just coming off the fifth season of ‘The Larry Sanders Show,’ I’m playing ‘The Young Man From Atlanta’ on Broadway, I’m the voice of Zeus in ‘Hercules’ and I’ve got a funny role in the movie ‘Trial and Error,’ ” boasts Torn, who won an Emmy for the role of the cantankerous Artie on HBO’s “Larry Sanders.”

“I’m having the time of my life, and I owe it all to Garry Shandling and television.”

Indeed, Torn is hardly the only feature-weaned actor who has found that a breakthrough TV role not only doesn’t make one persona non grata in the film community, it can expand a performer’s creative horizons and often notch an Emmy to boot.

From Jack Palance earning a 1956 Emmy for “Requiem for a Heavyweight” to Dame Judith Anderson winning a 1961 statuette for playing Lady MacBeth in “MacBeth” to Anthony Hopkins and Vanessa Redgrave snaring Emmys in 1981 for “The Bunker” and “Playing for Time,” respectively, actors have been using the small screen as a means of broadening their range by tackling material that may be more in-depth or literary than stage and screen would allow.

Others who used the tube for one-time, Emmy-winning roles include Peter Ustinov (1957’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson”), Ingrid Bergman (“A Woman Called Golda” in 1982), Laurence Olivier (1984’s “King Lear”), Dustin Hoffman (playing Willy Loman in CBS’s 1986 adaptation of “Death of a Salesman”), Jane Fonda (1984’s “The Dollmaker”) and Holly Hunter (the NBC abortion rights TV-movie “Roe vs. Wade” that won her a 1989 Emmy).

Hunter would also go on to win an Emmy for the HBO satire “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom.” Another two-time Emmy winner was Gena Rowlands, who earned statuettes for “The Betty Ford Story” 10 years ago and for “Faces of a Stranger” in 1992.

Rowlands also starred in the breakthrough 1986 NBC film “An Early Frost” that dealt frankly with AIDS issues before it was fashionable. She takes pride in the parts she has been able to play due to TV’s more open range.

“If there is a line separating film from TV, I just don’t see it, really,” Rowlands says. “I certainly reached a different audience playing Betty Ford than I had reached in theaters. As an actress, it really helped me expand to play someone who was such a national treasure.

“But I have to tell you, playing a real person was much more nerve-wracking than portraying a fictional person. With someone who is fictitious, you create it, you own it. When you play a real person, though, you need to present in a truthful way. You realize, ‘Oh God, her children are watching this, her husband..’ ”

Simply having the chance to play a role as rich as Betty Ford, however, was an honor for Rowlands. “And I wouldn’t have had that chance without TV,” she says. “TV is the one that’s far more apt these days to take on a social issue.”

Agreeing is James Woods, who won Emmys for his portrayals of a schizophrenic man in 1986’s “Promise” and of Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson in 1989’s “My Name is Bill W.”

I couldn’t have played Roy Cohn (HBO’s “Citizen Cohn”) or Bill W. in features,” Woods maintains. “Those were remarkable parts, and I got to work with great, highly intelligent, socially and politically motivated writers and directors and actors who do projects that seem to be slipping away from the feature film scene more and more.”

Woods cites the Oscar-winning 1947 classic about anti-Semitism, “Gentleman’s Agreement,” as an example of the kinds of social-issue dramas that wouldn’t get greenlit in today’s Hollywood environment, but would more likely end up as a made-for. ” ‘Panic in the Streets’ is another one, and ‘Days of Wine and Roses,’ too,” Woods adds. “That one would be a Hallmark Hall of Fame or an HBO movie.”

Mickey Rooney, whom film scholar David Thomson refers to as “an actor of genius,” is another film-trained performer who has tested the TV waters with “Bill,” the 1981 CBS docudrama that told the story of Bill Sackter, a mentally handicapped adult who was forced to live outside the institution where he spent 46 years of his life. Rooney won an Emmy for his title role.

But if you ask Rooney about the experience of moving into television after 60 years of film and stage, he’ll tell you it was actually no big deal and was in fact “not really that much of a challenge dramatically” to portray a retarded man.

“An actor is an actor is an actor,” believes Rooney, who has been doing this gig for 76 years. “We’re all nothing but grown up children playing make believe, and we’re just lucky enough to be in a business where we can act like children all our lives and get paid for it.”

The greatest thing about being in TV, says Torn, is that it’s enabled him to flex his muscles as a comedic actor as few had believed possible before his role in the 1991 Albert Brooks film “Defending Your Life” (the film role that won him “Larry Sanders”).

“People are discovering me all over again,” Torn marvels. “Some of my staunchest fans who watch ‘Larry Sanders’ are young people. Then there are the older relatives who don’t subscribe to HBO. They approach me and say, ‘Hey, how ya doin’? Ya need any money?’ I tell ’em, ‘C’mon, I’m only on the hottest show in television, for crying out loud!’ ”

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