Rip Torn, Actor Known for ‘Men in Black’ and ‘The Larry Sanders Show,’ Dies at 88

Torn also appeared on Broadway and in cult hits like "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" and "The Beastmaster"

Rip Torn, a prolific actor best known for HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show” and the “Men in Black” franchise, died Tuesday at his home in Lakeville, Connecticut, his representatives said. He was 88.

In a career spanning more than six decades, Torn established himself as a versatile performer, appearing in 10 Broadway plays (and directing one), more than 80 feature films, and dozens of television shows.

Born Elmore Rual Torn Jr. in Temple, Texas in 1931, Torn studied acting at Texas A&M and the University of Texas, and served a stint in the Army before heading to Los Angeles in the mid-1950s. He made his film debut with an uncredited role in Elia Kazan’s 1956 film “Baby Doll,” before relocating to New York City to study at the Actor’s Studio.

Torn made his Broadway debut in 1959 as part of the original cast of Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth” as “Tom, Jr.,” a role he would reprise for the feature film and TV movie adaptations. He was nominated for a Tony award in 1960 and received a Theater World award for his performance.

Known for his gravely drawl and sinister-looking smile, Torn excelled at playing shady, amoral characters and outright villains, as in his depiction of the evil wizard Maax in the fantasy film “The Beastmaster.” But he could also project no-nonsense authority, as he did playing the celestial attorney Bob Diamond in Albert Brooks’ “Defending Your Life,” or Zed in the first two “Men in Black” films. And in one of his most celebrated later roles, he combined those attributes in 2004’s “DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story,” as sleazy dodgeball legend Patches O’Houlihan, who delivers one of the film’s funniest lines: “If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.”

But it was the 1992-1998 HBO comedy “The Larry Sanders Show” for which Torn will be perhaps best remembered. For playing Artie, the doggedly loyal attack dog of a producer who runs the eponymous show and manages the fragile ego of its star, Torn was widely acclaimed. He received six Emmy nominations, winning once in 1996, and over the show’s run was also nominated for two American Comedy awards (winning one), an American Television Award, and four Cable Ace awards (winning one), among many other accolades.

“Larry Sanders” gave Torn a late-career boost, leading to well-regarded appearances in a wide range of films including Michael Mann’s “The Insider,” Curtis Hanson’s “Wonder Boys,” Sophia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” and on TV shows including “30 Rock,” playing the fictional CEO of General Electric. He also continued to appear in cult films, including the notorious 2001 surrealist Tom Green comedy “Freddie Got Fingered.” Panned at the time, it received eight Golden Raspberry nominations including Torn for Worst Supporting Actor. However the film was an unambiguous cult hit, making millions on DVD and is now more warmly regarded, particularly Torn’s role.

Torn also had a reputation for combative or erratic behavior throughout his career. He notoriously struck Norman Mailer with a hammer while making the 1970 film “Maidstone,” leading to a real brawl between the two that had to be broken up by other actors. The fight was captured by rolling cameras and later included in the finished movie. 

In 1994, during an appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” Dennis Hopper accused Torn of threatening him with a knife during pre-production on “Easy Rider.” Torn sued Hopper for defamation and won more than $900,00 in punitive and compensatory damages.

And in 2010, he was arrested for breaking into a bank in Lakeville, Connecticut, and later charged with carrying a firearm without a permit and carrying a firearm while intoxicated. He eventually received a suspended sentence and probation.

Torn was married three times: to Ann Wedgeworth from 1955 to 1961, to Geraldine Page from 1963 until her death in 1987, and to Amy Wright from 1989 until his death. He is survived by Wright, his five children, his sister, and four grandchildren.

As news of his death became public, Torn’s friends, former colleagues and admirers paid tribute to him on social media: