The late Rip Torn, who died July 9 at 88, had a career that included decade-spanning stage work, an Oscar-nominated performance in the film “Cross Creek,” and later turns in movies as wide-ranging as “Men in Black” and “Marie Antoinette.” But to legions of viewers, he’s best remembered as Artie, perhaps the one moral major character on HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show.” The Emmy-winning performance was perhaps the best representation of Torn’s unusual blend of toughness and tender sentimentality, a turn that was as often profane as it was unexpectedly moving.
“The Larry Sanders Show” was a depiction of a world that was slipping away from its characters — Larry, played by the late Garry Shandling, is a would-be Johnny Carson figure, a network late-night host whose only real comic edge comes out when his talk show wraps for the night, as he berates himself. The chat show is buffeted both by Larry’s tidal shifts of ego and self-loathing and from existential changes within the TV industry, as viewers seek options with more edge and as celebrity guests assert their own egos more and more forcefully.
Which places Artie, the executive producer of Larry’s show, at the heart of the story, a spot he occupies with grit and vim. He’s relentless in boosting his star not merely with the language of the sycophant but with a hardbitten, us-against-the-world style of rhetoric that suggests the daily production of a television show is not unlike a military campaign. The show’s most dynamic relationship may have been between Artie and Hank (Jeffrey Tambor), Larry’s insecure, grasping sidekick. Tambor plays Hank as Ed McMahon seen through a funhouse mirror that exaggerates every bit of hostility and competition; it’s a mix of adverse, time-consuming qualities that Artie cannot abide. He’s willing to flatter or cajole Larry in order to convince him that what he does is important, but, to make the show work, Hank must be brought to heel.
That allows Torn to access the stoniness that lies an inch below his smile, his ability to suddenly freeze his smile. Artie isn’t insincere — he genuinely seems to care about Larry’s well-being and his career success, and he sees with clear eyes how intertwined the two are. But he’s tactical, deploying the sides of his charisma that the moment calls for and going scarily dead when he must. We learn, over the course of the series, precious little about Artie other than his remarkable gift for keeping those who’d otherwise fall apart upright and working. As played by a veteran actor who’d surely met his share of Hollywood personalities, Artie is a creature of a vanishing industry, a company man in an era in which that’s falling out of fashion. If, indeed, the character is based in sum or in part on “Tonight Show” producer Fred de Cordova (an industry legend whose impact is not widely known to fans of Johnny Carson’s show), it’s a worthy testament to an era in which high-level entertainment was played backstage and out of the spotlight, with charm and a sportsmanlike love of the game.
It’s a performance that Torn echoed, to some degree, in his recurring role on “30 Rock” as the irascible General Electric CEO Don Geiss, reveling in his wealth and gnomically delivering pronouncements that pushed Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) further in his quest for corporate domination. But Geiss was cold and cruel while Artie was simply an unapologetic operator. Geiss ultimately was working only on his own behalf, and Artie captained a team that he was determined to carry not to any finish line — none existed for the long-running Sanders show — but simply to the next day of taping. Little wonder the performance received such acclaim and awards attention from a town with plenty of fractious, status-anxious Larrys and Hanks; the serenity of an Artie, unwilling to make himself the story of his project’s success but singlemindedly devoted to it nonetheless, seemed in the show’s first run like a throwback. Today, in an era in which ego seems to lead at every level of the industry, it seems like a fantasy — one that only an actor with the skill, the nuance, and the willingness to toggle between warmth and fearsomeness of Torn could pull off.