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Rip Torn, ‘Men in Black,’ ‘Larry Sanders Show’ Star, Dies at 88

Actor Rip Torn, who earned Oscar and Tony nominations as well as an Emmy Award and two Obies, has died Tuesday in Lakeville Conn., his representative confirmed. He was 88.

Torn was equally at home in the comedy of the “Men in Black” film series or TV’s “The Larry Sanders Show” (for which he won his Emmy) and in the drama of “Sweet Bird of Youth” or “Anna Christie,” to name two of the numerous classic works of theater in which he appeared.

The actor was nominated for a supporting-actor Oscar in 1984 for his work as a father who confronts tragedy in Martin Ritt’s “Cross Creek,” one of many rural dramas in which he appeared during his career.

He drew a Tony nomination in 1960 for his first performance on Broadway, as the sadistic son of the town boss in Elia Kazan’s original production of Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth.” Torn later replaced Paul Newman in the starring role of Chance Wayne. He, Newman and Broadway co-star Geraldine Page, whom Torn married in 1963, re-created their roles in the 1962 film adaptation. (Torn also starred as Boss Finley in a 1989 NBC adaptation of the play directed by Nicolas Roeg.)

Unlike many actors, who take on the New York stage before making their way to film work, Torn headed for Hollywood after college, making his bigscreen debut in an uncredited role in Kazan’s 1956 “Baby Doll” and then appearing in the director’s “A Face in the Crowd.” But Torn soon decided that he had put the cart before the horse and headed East. In New York he studied performance with modern-dance doyenne Martha Graham and at the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg. (Torn brought his aspiring cousin, Sissy Spacek, into the Actors Studio.)

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Like Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman or Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks, Torn and Page “became a glamorous couple in theater circles, assuming roles on the board of the Actors Studio and organizing bashes at the Chateau Marmont when they were in Los Angeles,” the New York Times said.

Torn’s initial successes in New York came not on the stage, however, but in the prestigious anthology shows of 1950s live television such as “Omnibus,” “Playhouse 90” and “The United States Steel Hour.”

The actor’s film career began to gain steam with a supporting role as Gregory Peck’s brother-in-law in the 1959 Korean War pic “Pork Chop Hill” and the part of Judas in Nicholas Ray’s 1961 epic “King of Kings.”

Meanwhile, on Broadway, he followed “Sweet Bird of Youth” with roles in the plays “Daughter of Silence,” Eugene O’Neill’s “Strange Interlude” and “Blues for Mister Charlie” in the early 1960s.

He made his Off Broadway debut in O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms,” and in 1967 he won an Obie for his role in Norman Mailer’s “Deer Park.”

But Torn was developing a reputation for erratic behavior. He worked for racial integration in theater but ended up alienating “Blues for Mister Charlie” author James Baldwin even after defending his then-shocking play about racism in America. In 1968, after Torn became frustrated over the creative direction of the project and as the cameras were rolling, he attacked Mailer with a hammer on the set of the film “Maidstone,” which Mailer was directing and in which the pair were starring.

The signal such moment in Torn’s life, however, had occurred a year earlier, when the actor had gathered with Terry Southern, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper to discuss a possible starring role for Torn — the one that ultimately went to Jack Nicholson — in “Easy Rider.” At this dinner, tempers flared; in 1994 Hopper claimed on “The Tonight Show” that Torn had attacked him with a knife. Torn sued Hopper for defamation — he claimed it was Hopper who pulled a knife on him — and won a total of $950,000 in court.

Despite the ultimate legal victories, Torn felt that Hopper’s version of what happened, repeated over the years in Hollywood circles before Hopper related it to Jay Leno on national television, hurt his career. (Indeed, the money awarded him by the judge including compensation for lost income during his career.)

In any case, Torn was a busy actor during the two decades before he started his six-year run on “The Larry Sanders Show” in 1992.

On TV and film he played a number of historic personages, from Walt Whitman (twice), Henry Miller and Kit Carson to three U.S. presidents — Lyndon Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant and Richard Nixon, in the 1979 miniseries “Blind Ambition.” (He had earlier played Nixon onstage in New York in “Expletive Deleted.”) Torn even portrayed Carlo Ponti in 1980 NBC telepic “Sophia Loren: Her Own Story.”

On the bigscreen in the 1970s, he had roles in “Tropic of Cancer” (in which he starred), “Crazy Joe,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “Coma,” “The Seduction of Joe Tynan” (he memorably played a womanizing Southern senator) and “Heartland” (a powerful Western drama in which he played a simple man of subtle wit).

While he picked up his Oscar nom for “Cross Creek” in 1984, Torn was often in a silly mood in his films of the 1980s, including “The Beastmaster,” “Jinxed,” “Airplane II: The Sequel” and “Cash.” In Albert Brooks’ 1991 “Defending Your Life,” he shone as Brooks’ acerbic defense attorney.

Torn also directed a feature, 1988 Whoopi Goldberg vehicle “The Telephone,” but despite a script by Harry Nillson and Terry Southern, it was not a success critically or commercially.

He had continued to work in theater all along. Torn directed a number of plays Off Broadway, most successfully Michael McClure’s “The Beard,” which won him a helming Obie in 1968. (In 1977 he directed a pair of Strindberg plays, “Creditors” and “The Stronger,” that starred both his current wife, Page, and his future wife, Amy Wright.) He also appeared on Broadway in “The Glass Menagerie” with Maureen Stapleton in 1976 and in “Mixed Couples” in 1981 with Page and Julie Harris. Off Broadway he appeared in Sam Shepard’s “Seduced” in 1979.

The actor was also working very steadily in television, picking up an Emmy nomination in 1985 for his work in CBS telepic “The Atlanta Child Murders” and in 1994 for a guest role on “Chicago Hope.” But his six-year stint on HBO’s highly successful “The Larry Sanders Show” — he played Larry’s producer Artie — nevertheless marked a significant career resurgence for Torn, one hurt, at least for a time, by Hopper’s 1994 utterance on “The Tonight Show.” Torn was Emmy nominated six times for “Larry Sanders,” winning in 1996.

On Broadway, he returned to O’Neill in 1993, starring with Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson in “Anna Christie,” and starred in Horton Foote’s “The Young Man From Atlanta” in 1997.

On the bigscreen Torn had broad roles in the comedies “Canadian Bacon” and “Down Periscope” — and a supporting role in the hugely successful “Men in Black” sci-fi comedy film franchise starting with the first entry in 1997 — but was still starring occasionally in very small-budget indie films with low profiles, such as “Where the River Flows North” in 1993. Though it was panned when it was released in 2001, he’s remembered fondly for his role as Tom Green’s father in surreal comedy “Freddy Got Fingered.”

In 2004 Torn shined in the Gene Hackman-Ray Romano presidential comedy “Welcome to Mooseport.” Roger Ebert said: “Rip Torn plays the Karl Rove role. What a pleasure Torn is. Like Christopher Walken and Steve Buscemi, he makes us smile just by appearing on the screen.”

The actor also won praise for his role as an egomaniacal Memphis record producer in 2005’s “Forty Shades of Blue,” an award winner at Sundance, and many considered him the best thing in Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” (2006), in which he played a delightfully salacious Louis XV.

And on TV he recurred on NBC comedy “30 Rock” as the fictional CEO of General Electric, picking up an Emmy nomination in 2008.

Elmore Rual Torn Jr. was born in Temple, Texas. His father was an agricultural economist, and Torn attended Texas A&M and the U. of Texas, studying animal husbandry before turning to acting, training under actor, director and scholar B. Iden Payne.

Successful onstage, in films and on television, the actor nevertheless carried a sense of persecution. In a 2006 profile of Torn, the New York Times Magazine said, “Rather than see himself, at 75, as a triumphant monarch of the trade, Torn fancies himself a besieged general, the profession itself a bloody battle.”

His tendency toward erratic behavior manifested again even amid his late-career success: He tangled with law enforcement repeatedly over drunken automobile collisions and was arrested in 2010 after breaking into a closed bank while carrying a weapon.

Torn’s son and daughter by Geraldine Page, Tony and Angelica, are actor and directors, and Torn produced their helming efforts “The Convention” (2006) and “Lucky Days” (2008), also appearing in the latter. However, Angelica changed her last name from Torn to Page in 2011 when she grew estranged from her father.

In addition to Geraldine Page, to whom he was married until her death in 1987, Torn was earlier married to actress Ann Wedgeworth. In addition to Tony and Angelica, he is survived by his third wife, actress Amy Wright, and four other children: Danae, an occasional actress, Claire, Jonathan and Katie.

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