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Character Actor Rip Torn Dies At 88


The actor Rip Torn was known for his versatility. He could play stern. He could play grumpy for laughs or completely sell an outrageous role. Rip Torn died yesterday at his home in Connecticut. He was 88 years old. And the tributes are pouring in from Torn's co-stars and peers, including Albert Brooks, Will Smith and Alec Baldwin. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: In the HBO sitcom "The Larry Sanders Show," Rip Torn plays Arthur, the producer of the late night show, the guy in charge of keeping everyone happy - the guests, the network execs - but most importantly the host.


RIP TORN: (As Arthur) Will you tell that new guy on camera three not to go so close on Larry? General rule of thumb - if you see nose hair, it's too close.

LIMBONG: He was born an Elmore Torn in Texas. Rip was his nickname. And while he was most known for his work on the "Sanders Show," earning six Emmy nominations, winning one, his body of work was long and varied. After a stint in the Army, he left his home and ended up working as an actor in New York, where he immersed himself. He studied at the Actors Studio, which led to director Elia Kazan casting Torn in the Broadway production of "Sweet Bird Of Youth," which earned torn a Tony nomination. He played Big Daddy in a TV adaptation of "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof" across from a young Tommy Lee Jones.


TORN: (As Big Daddy) First you answer my question. Why do you drink? Why are you throwing your life away, boy, like something disgusting you picked up on the street?

LIMBONG: In the 1976 David Bowie sci fi movie The Man Who Fell To Earth, he played a sleazy scientist.


TORN: (As Nathan Bryce) I gradually began to lose my interest in 18-year-olds. I don't know what happened to me.

LIMBONG: In "Men In Black," he played the stern-but-trusting head of the agency.


TORN: (As Zed) We had an unauthorized landing somewhere in upstate New York. Kay, keep your ears open on this one. We're not hosting an intergalactic kegger down here.

LIMBONG: Torn told NPR's Susan Stamberg in 1984 that he didn't want to keep playing the same roles over and over again, particularly the types of villains he'd played early in his career.


TORN: People a lot of times relate to you that way even while you're on the set.

SUSAN STAMBERG: You mean they act that in real life.

TORN: Well, they - people will tell you later - say, I know it's not you, but, God, I hate you.

STAMBERG: (Laughter).

TORN: You know, and it gets to be a bore after a while. Yeah, I like to mix it up. I like playing all kinds of different roles.

LIMBONG: Rip Torn was a notoriously difficult man to deal with. He had issues with alcohol, a couple of reported arrests for drunk driving. And he was prone to angry outbursts, which were sometimes caught on tape. There's an infamous scene in the 1970 movie "Maidstone." The film was written, directed by and starred in Norman Mailer playing an actor running for president, filming a movie about a brothel. Torn plays his half-brother who, in the last scene, attempts to assassinate Mailer's character by hitting him over the head with a hammer. Torn gets a little too in-character and actually tries to do it.


NORMAN MAILER: (As Norman Kingsley) You crazy...

LIMBONG: They wrestle to the ground. Torn is on top of Mailer, choking him. Mailer bites Torn's ear. Both of them are bleeding. Kids are screaming in the background while the crew pulls them apart. They get up, trade insults. One of the kids says, don't fight anymore. Torn says...


TORN: (As Raoul O'Houlihan) That's right, baby - no fighting. It was just a scene in a Hollywood whorehouse movie.

LIMBONG: But with Rip Torn, it seems there was no such thing as just a scene. Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.