Lawrence Tierney, onscreen and offscreen tough guy, died in his sleep Feb. 26 in Los Angeles after having suffered strokes and bouts of pneumonia over the past several years. He was a few weeks shy of his 83rd birthday.
Athletic Brooklyn native and older brother of actors Scott Brady (“Johnny Guitar,” “China Syndrome”) and Edward Tierney was signed by RKO Studios in 1943. After supporting roles in “The Ghost Ship” and “The Falcon Out West” he achieved sudden stardom and his reputation as a silver screen hoodlum as the vicious gangster John Dillinger in Monogram Pictures’ “Dillinger” while on loan to independent producers Maurice and Frank King.
RKO Pictures took pains to exploit his tough-guy image through roles in films such as “San Quentin,” “Step by Step,” “The Devil Thumbs a Ride,” “Born to Kill,” “Bodyguard,” “Kill or Be Killed,” “The Hoodlum” (with brother Edward in 1951) and Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952) playing the villain who causes the circus train to wreck.
But Tierney’s offscreen persona became increasingly erratic; by the 1960s, his drinking got the better of him and his career took a nosedive. After acting in John Cassavettes’ “A Child Is Waiting” in 1963, he lived the next 20 years in France, acting only occasionally.
Upon his return to the U.S., he became a horse-and-carriage driver in New York’s Central Park, his bouts with the law became less frequent and he began acting more regularly. He appeared in “Prizzi’s Honor,” “Silver Bullet,” “Naked Gun” and Norman Mailer’s “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” as well as TV’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Remington Steele,” “Fame” and “Hunter” and a recurring role on “Hill St. Blues.” By 1991, the revival of his career was completed when he landed the role of ringleader Joe Cabot in Quentin Tarantino’s debut “Reservoir Dogs.”
Tierney continued to work in film and television through the remainder of his life, even after suffering a debilitating stroke in 1995.He became increasingly interested in TV and cartoons after doing a voiceover for “The Simpsons” and subsequently did voices for “Toto Lost in New York,” “Who Stole Santa?” and “Christmas in Oz.”
Tierney’s final role was as Bruce Willis’ father in “Armageddon.”
He is survived by a daughter and several nephews, including filmmaker Michael Tierney.
A memorial will be held March 15 (his birthday) in Los Angeles at location to be determined.