Rip Torn had the temper of 10 men. He infamously duked it out with crazy man Dennis Hopper and had both a real-life and on-screen battle royale with Norman Mailer—where he wielded a hammer no less! And just when Torn seemed to get his on-set behavior in check, his personal life imploded. Just what was an inebriated and armed Rip Torn doing in that bank in the middle of the night? Let's find out what made this legendary actor tick.
1. He Liked Black-Eyed Peas
Temple, Texas was the birthplace of Elmore Rual Torn Jr on February 6, 1931. Torn’s father was an agriculturist with a strange dream: He wanted Americans to eat black-eyed peas for New Year's Eve (it did not catch on). Torn’s mother was Thelma Mary Spacek, aunt of Carrie herself, Sissy Spacek. Like most of the men in his family, Torn took the nickname Rip and carried it with him all the way to Hollywood.
With a name like that, it was only a matter of time before it ended up on a marquee.
2. He Name Was A Joke
The name Rip Torn seems to be a running joke throughout Torn’s life. When he was a child he had a friend named Larry Blyden who pronounced his name “Bleedin”. The two young besties ran around town calling themselves: “Torn and Bleedin”. As it turned out, the two boys were both interested in becoming actors—but for Torn, it was just a means to a completely different end.
3. He Needed A Lot Of Money
Torn initially thought he'd work in agriculture like his father, so he studied animal husbandry at the University of Texas. He thought that owning his own ranch would be the coolest thing ever, but there was one problem: He didn't have the money. No worries, he'd just figured he'd become a movie star first! (Seriously).
While it certainly wasn’t a sure thing, Torn had enough confidence that he stuck his thumb out on the side of the highway and headed for Hollywood. He was a man with a plan: It just wasn’t a very good one.
4. They Didn’t Want Him
Torn soon realized that, despite his made-for-the-marquee name, nobody in Hollywood wanted to give him a shot. So, instead of returning to Texas with his tail between his legs, he headed to New York. There he signed up at the Actor’s Studio and met a man who would ignite his career: the respected Broadway and Hollywood director Elia Kazan. The On The Waterfront director put Torn in a couple of movies and also on Broadway.
It was here that Torn came face to face with an acting legend: Paul Newman.
5. He Moved To The Lead
Torn was appearing with Newman in the Broadway show Sweet Bird of Youth. Newman was without a doubt the star, but when he left the show to do other things, Torn stepped into the lead role. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and when a film version was in the works, Torn thought he had hit the motherlode. He was in for a rude awakening.
6. He Got Pushed Down
Once Newman found out that Sweet Bird of Youth was going to be a movie, he wanted his part back. Torn had to step back, but at least he still had his supporting role to fall back on. And he got a pretty amazing consolation prize. Between the long Broadway run and making a movie, Torn worked with his co-star Geraldine Page for a long time.
Before long, the sparks flew.
7. It Was A Page Torn From History
In 1963, a year after the release of Sweet Bird of Youth, Torn married Page—who was seven years older than him. Of course, their made-for-each-other last names made room for a lot of jokes. The couple even called their country estate “Torn Page”. Strangely, the two never worked on another film again together. They did, however, throw more than a few parties.
8. They Were Glamorous
As a couple, Torn and Page became a sort of focal point for the New York theater party circuit. They threw glamorous parties with such notable guests as Miles Davis and Judy Garland. The power couple were also helpful to young actors looking for a career. In fact, when Torn’s cousin Sissy Spacek was starting out, Torn and Page helped get her on her feet.
But doing favors for others wasn't getting Torn anywhere in his career. That only started when he turned bad.
9. He Was A Bad Guy
Over the next few years, Torn's leading man good looks quickly went south. He cleverly decided that to stay in the business, he had to change it up. To do this, he created a character: a loudmouth, often morally compromised, and downright scary individual. He got a chance to try out his new character in a few supporting roles in TV shows such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Audiences seemed to like him, but could he turn this TV anti-hero into a Hollywood career?
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10. He Was In Demand
Torn’s TV appearances as a menacing bad guy got the notice of movie makers. Soon, he got the chance to insert his bad guy character into a hit film: 1965’s The Cincinnati Kid. Co-starring with Steve McQueen, Torn became known for the heartless character who wanted to see his enemy “gutted”. Torn’s TV schtick was about to make him into one of Hollywood’s most in-demand character actors.
But here's the thing: The whole "bad guy character" thing? Maybe it wasn't so far from the real Rip Torn...
11. He Took A Hammer
In 1968, Torn was working on Maidstone with Norman Mailer. Now Mailer was not only the writer and director, but also Torn’s co-star. Maybe Torn had had just about enough of Mailer, but that doesn't excuse what he did: With the cameras running, a very angry Torn pounced on Mailer...wielding a hammer.
12. He Did What He Was Told
OK, it wasn't quite as bad as it looked. Torn may have looked like a true psychopath, but the attack was actually in the script. There's a twist, though: Mailer didn’t want to know when it would happen, hoping that would provide some realism. So, when Torn went at him with a hammer, he was playing his role. It soon devolved, however, into a frighteningly real fight.
13. It Was All Real
If you’re feeling sorry for Mailer, think again. In the very real brawl between Torn and Mailer, the director got his share in too. He apparently took a chunk of Torn’s ear off with his teeth. Any blood you see in the finished film scene is real. Making it even more authentic are the screams of Mailer’s children in the background. We can blame both Torn and Mailer for this unruly behavior.
Torn’s next fiasco, at least, can't be blamed on him.
14. He Spoke Out
Torn was certainly a member of the 1960s counterculture, and part of that meant being opposed to America's involvement in Vietnam. It was a heated time in America, and tempers ran high. Torn gave his opinion about Vietnam on The Dick Cavett Show, but he wasn't prepared for the retaliation that came next: A random crazy person took a shot at his house. As we said, tempers ran high.
15. He Went Mainstream
In the eighties, Torn seemed to want to get away from the more arty films and do some things that were more mainstream. In 1982, he appeared in the sword and sorcery film The Beastmaster. He then turned to comedy and had roles in Jinxed with Bette Midler and the cheekily titled Airplane II: The Sequel.
Despite his tough guy persona, Torn also wasn’t above doing a romance film: and it paid off big time.
16. He Finally Got Recognized
In 1983, Torn appeared in the romantic drama Cross Creek. His non-typecast performance as the main character’s sympathetic neighbor drew favorable attention. Who knew Torn could be sympathetic? The Academy was so impressed that Torn would play something other than cantankerous, they gave him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. When he received the nomination, however, Torn made a weird comment.
17. Nothing Could Stop Him
When the Academy nominated Torn for an Oscar, he seemed a little misguided about what it meant. Instead of attributing his nomination to his skill as an actor, he put it down to something else. He put it this way: “People are finally realizing I'm one of the few actors who has never missed a performance. I've worked with broken legs, arms, ankles. I once passed a kidney stone during the opening night of a show”.
Okay Torn, we know you worked hard, but give yourself some credit.
18. He Brought His A-Game
Rip Torn always gave 110% to each project he worked on, whether it was an arty masterpiece or a film that was clearly...not. Two of the titles that Torn gave his A-game to that maybe didn’t deserve it are: Freddy Got Fingered and Robocop 3. Even in those disasters, Rip Torn still managed to keep his dignity as an actor. It seemed like Torn could do anything he put his mind to. Well…anything except direct.
19. He Was A Director—Once
While it’s a cliche that all actors eventually want to sit in the director’s chair, only a few of them actually make it as a director. Torn decided upon a nice and simple story to make his directing debut: The Telephone, a film centered around one character and one set. Sounds easy peasy—what could possibly go wrong?
In short: everything.
20. He Got A No
The Telephone was about an out-of-work actor who starts making prank telephone calls and, as they say in Hollywood, one thing leads to another. The key to the film was obviously the person chosen to play the actor: as there was almost no one else in the film. Torn and the producers of the film had their eye on funny man Robin Williams. He was certainly the kind of off-the-wall performer who had the ability to pull this thing off.
Unfortunately, Williams' agent thought otherwise and gave Torn a firm no. Time for plan B—and that's exactly where things started to go wrong.
21. They Replaced Him
Torn and the producers of The Telephone decided to replace Williams with another hot comedian at the time: Whoopi Golberg. They modified the script to suit a female performer and went ahead with the production. As Torn directed each scene he started to notice something: Goldberg wasn’t saying the lines that were in the script. No matter what Torn said to her, she just kept doing her own thing.
Torn had finally had it and went to the producers to complain. It was only going to go from bad to worse.
22. He Got Some Bad News
Torn had been reluctant to rat out his lead actor, but Goldberg’s ad-libbing had given him no choice. He went to the producers and found out something he had not expected at all: The producers were secretly encouraging Goldberg to improvise. Oh and not only that, Torn got some more bad news. They were replacing Torn’s director of photography with someone of Goldberg’s choice: her own husband.
Torn must have been wondering whose film this was: his or Goldberg’s?
23. He Had To Beg
Torn went back to the set of The Telephone and had to figure out what to do. So, he came up with a plan. Torn would let Goldberg do as many takes as she wanted with her ad-libbing. But, she had to do at least one take using the actual words on the page. If it sounds to you like they were making two completely different films, you’re on to something.
24. They Made Two
Once Torn had finished filming The Telephone, they started to put together a film—well, two films. Torn and the writers edited a version that used only the takes where Goldberg stuck to the script. The producers got an editor to make another film which mostly included Goldberg’s improvising. The Telephone was now two different films: and it was a race to see which one hit the screens first and which would be successful.
25. She Got A Nomination
Torn wanted to release his version of The Telephone first, so he got it into the Sundance Film Festival, where it received some interest. But his dream ended there. The producers were planning their own release for just after Sundance. It went as poorly as you'd expect. At a New York screening of the producer’s version, an audience member shouted out that they wanted their money back. Goldberg received a Golden Raspberry nomination for Worst Actress, and the film was a financial flop.
The failure devastated Torn—but there was more to come.
26. He Faced Tragedy
Following the flop of The Telephone, Torn faced a far more devastating tragedy. His wife Geraldine Page hadn’t shown up for her performance in Blithe Spirit where she was playing a clairvoyant who speaks to the deceased. They later found Page’s lifeless body in her apartment: it was a heart attack. Torn and Page had had a rare Hollywood marriage that lasted 24 years. How would he ever recover?
27. He Said Good-Bye…And Hello
At Page’s memorial, Torn expressed his sorrow in Spanish: “Mi corazon, mi alma, mi esposa” which means my heart, my soul, and my wife. He went on to say that he and Page had never stopped being lovers and added: “We never will”. Yet, just two years later, Torn walked down the aisle again. This time with Amy Wright—who was almost two decades younger than him.
Torn had a new lease on life—let’s see what he does with it.
28. He Could Be Funny
So, Torn was sailing along in his roles as an angry and often scary bad guy. But was this all he was capable of? Well, it turned out he was also quite funny. Albert Brooks was making a film called Defending Your Life in which the nearly deceased have to, as the title suggests, defend their lives to a celestial judge. Torn saw it as a way for him to showcase his comedic chops.
But he almost didn’t get the role.
29. He Was Third
Albert Brooks, the director and star of Defending Your Life, had convinced himself that he wanted one of the actors from Easy Rider to be in his new film. If you recall, the producers of Easy Rider had dropped Torn from the film due to his heated argument with Dennis Hopper. Well, Brooks first went to Hopper, who said no because of scheduling. He then went to the man who replaced Torn in Easy Rider, Jack Nicholson—who was also unavailable.
Even though Torn was sloppy thirds, he happily took the role.
30. He Went Commercial
Torn had a chance to show his comedic side in Defending Your Life and it paid off. In 1993, Torn took his new “funny bad guy persona” and went commercial—literally. In a series of ads, Torn plays a desperate—and evil—battery company CEO who goes to battle against the Energizer Bunny. His character employs various henchmen to attack the Bunny—even King Kong.
It seemed that Torn had taken his bad guy character and made it into a brand; one that he could exchange for gold.
31. He Hit Gold
Between his comic turn in Defending Your Life and his amusing Energizer commercials, Torn’s new persona had emerged. It turned out, he could be funny: which led him to a place in TV history. On the groundbreaking The Larry Sanders Show, Torn turned his lovable cantankerous character into comedic gold as TV producer Artie. Audiences loved him, and so did the people at the Emmys. They nominated him six times for his role and finally gave him the statue in 1996.
But what about Torn’s bad-boy reputation? Was it gone for good?
32. His Reputation Proceeded Him
Folks on The Larry Sanders Show were certainly happy to have someone of Torn’s caliber on the show, but were also wary of his past exploits. It seemed that, although his hammer attack on Mailer was a long time ago, the cast and crew of The Larry Sanders Show wanted to stay safe. So, they instigated a rule just for Torn: no hammers on the set.
The rule turned out to be unnecessary—it wasn’t Torn who caused problems on the set.
33. He Called The Kettle Black
The late Burt Reynolds was once a guest on The Larry Sanders Show, and he ended up having an angry meltdown on the set. As the cast and crew watched Reynolds lose it, some were waiting for the infamous Rip Torn to join in. While the tantrum spiraled, Torn turned to his producer and murmured: “Burt’s a troubled boy”. Tolan wisely kept his mouth shut, but…oh the irony.
The character of Artie seemed to have changed Torn, but where did he find this new, peaceful side of himself?
34. He Was Channeling
Many viewers opined that Torn’s character Artie held The Larry Sanders Show together. But where did Torn get his inspiration for the iconic character? Most assumed that Torn was channeling someone real: Tonight Show producer Fred De Cordova—who was considered to be a legend in the field. If you think this is just idle speculation, we've got proof:
35. It Was Official
Most people had deduced that Torn was using Tonight Show producer Fred De Cordova as a muse for Artie. It wasn’t, however, just some people’s opinions. When De Cordova wrote his autobiography, he gifted one to Torn. What De Cordova had written inside the cover floored Torn. It said: “To the other Fred”. Yes, Torn had done some serious “borrowing” for his inspiration. He did, however, manage to pay it forward.
36. He Inspired Smarminess
Torn’s Artie, on The Larry Sanders Show, was a complex character who constantly strove to keep everyone happy—even though it wasn’t something he was naturally good at. Arte was also very influential. Some commentators see him as a forerunner to some of TV’s most popular characters. Some even say that without Torn’s complex portrayal of Artie, we probably wouldn’t have some of the characters in hit shows like Veep or even The Office.
Torn had taken TV by storm, but now it was time to get back to the movies—and he did in a big way.
37. He Was A Man In Black
Torn was riding high on his success on The Larry Sanders Show when a major movie role came his way. It was another supporting part, but that seemed to be what Torn excelled at. Men In Black had blockbuster written all over it. The producer was Steven Spielberg and it starred Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. You might have concerns about the volatile Torn working with hotheads Jones and Smith. Well, Torn had mellowed by then: nothing happened on this one.
It seemed that Torn had found his inner peace. Or maybe, he was holding it all in—which meant it was only a matter of time before he exploded.
38. He Was In A Foul Mood
In January 2004, Torn was driving a vehicle that collided with a taxi. When officers arrived, they found Torn in a very bad mood. He swore at the officers and, when they asked to take a breathalyzer, he angrily refused. Embarrassingly, someone recorded the entire exchange on their phone. In spite of the video, a jury acquitted the famous actor, and he walked away scot-free.
Surely Torn had learned his lesson—or so you’d think.
39. In Trouble Again
Almost three years later, Torn was in trouble with the law again: also involving a vehicle. It seemed that Torn had plowed his car into a tractor-trailer. This time the officers in North Salem, New York were able to administer the breathalyzer, and the results weren’t good. Torn was over the limit and had the book thrown at him. As it turned out, it wasn’t a very heavy book.
40. He Got Off Light
For crashing his car into a tractor-trailer while notoriously over the limit, Torn’s punishment was scandalously light. The judge took his license away for 90 days and Torn had to pay a $380 fine. With such a gentle wrist tap for his offense, it’s not surprising that Torn did it all over again just three years later. Amidst all this personal drama, though, Torn was still on board for comedy.
41. He Played It Again
Tina Fey wanted Torn to play a General Electric CEO on her hit show-within-a-show sitcom 30 Rock. Maybe Torn’s Don Geiss somewhat resembled his Larry Sanders character Artie, but audiences didn’t care: He was a hit. Even though it was only a few guest spots, Torn got an Emmy nomination. Torn lost the award, however, to comedy veteran Tim Conway, who had also appeared on 30 Rock.
Torn was set to have a long run on 30 Rock: but his personal life was about to collide with his career.
42. It Was Short-Lived
Torn seemed happy to play the occasional spot on 30 Rock, but it was sadly to be a short-lived gig. Everyone on the show knew that Torn had a reputation, but it seemed that, on set anyway, Torn had finally matured. Even the volatile Alec Baldwin hadn’t been able to ruffle Torn’s feathers. It was actually something that happened off set that made Torn lose his job.
When Fey heard the following story, she put Torn’s character into a coma.
43. Officers Broke In
In January 2010, an inebriated Torn drove himself home and got out of his car carrying a pistol. He went into his home, took off his boots, and fell asleep. When officers later broke in, Torn looked confused and asked the officers what they were doing in his house. The officers' response left the fast-talking Torn, speechless.
44. He Had The Worst Excuse Ever
When Torn asked the officers why they were in his house, instead of answering his question, they asked him their own: “Why are you in this bank?” It turns out that Torn had been so inebriated that he mistook the bank for his own house. Or at least that was what he said at the time. While this sounds like the worst excuse ever, there may be some truth to it.
45. It Was An Honest Mistake
When Larry Sanders producer Peter Tolan heard the story about Torn breaking into a bank, he spoke in Torn’s defense. He said that some of those towns in Connecticut, where Torn lived, had weird by-laws. One of them was that banks and businesses had to look like houses—for a better aesthetic appeal. So, in effect, it was quite possible for Torn to mistake a bank for his house.
While entering the bank may have been an honest mistake, there were still some things he did that required punishment.
46. He Was Punished (2010)
After finding him in the bank, the officers took Torn down to the station and charged him with carrying a firearm with no permit and while under the influence. In addition, they charged him with trespassing and mischief. Torn’s lawyer just wanted to get Torn out on bail, so he promised that Torn would get help with his drinking problem. The judge set the bail at $100,000 and Torn was free.
47. He Hit The Friendly Skies
So well-loved was Torn’s Men In Black character Zed that he managed to milk it for a few more dollars. Air New Zealand was desperate for a way to make their safety video more appealing to passengers. They hired Torn to play Zed in that usually boring video that no one watches before takeoff. If Torn’s performance was entertaining enough, you may even conclude that he saved some lives.
48. He Wasn’t There
If you don’t remember Torn in the 1969 iconic counterculture film Easy Rider, don’t worry: He wasn’t actually in it. Torn was originally appearing as George Hanson—the part that sent Jack Nicholson’s career on fire. So why didn’t we see Torn in the picture? Well, years later costar Dennis Hopper told The Tonight Show host Jay Leno that Torn threatened him with a blade. It was for this reason that Torn got fired.
When Torn heard Hopper’s story, he had to speak out.
49. He Switched It
When Torn heard Hopper tell the story, he turned around and told his side; which has Hopper holding the blade. It quickly became a macho form of “he said, he said”. How would we ever know the truth? Well, let’s trust the courts, shall we? Torn turned around and brought a defamation of character suit against Hopper and by the end of it, the judge ordered Hopper to pay Torn $475,000.
Torn must have been deliriously happy to see Hopper punished. It wouldn’t be long, however, before Torn got punished himself.
50. He Was Surrounded By Family
By 2019, Torn was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and in July of that year, he quietly passed. It happened at his home and he was in the presence of his wife and family. In the end, he had amassed quite a collection: his daughter from his first wife, another daughter and twin sons from his second marriage, and his two kids with Amy Wright. They laid him to rest at the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery in New York state where—we hope anyway—he can finally rest in peace.