Rip Torn, paragon of masculinity among actors and for the public who have seen him in Men in Black, Larry Sanders and recently as Don Geiss in 30 Rock, was telling a story. He was standing on the southeast corner of 23rd Street and Ninth Avenue, wearing black cowboy boots, black Wrangler work pants held up by suspenders, a blue striped shirt, sherbet orange vest and a dusty black fedora.
“I’ve seen people die, but never go from alive to dead that quickly,” he said.
It had happened on this same corner; Rip Torn was hiding behind a lamppost with Norman Mailer, who would one day try to bite off his ear. But that was later. The soon-to-be-dead guy in the story Mr. Torn was telling was someone unfortunate enough to be flushed out from a hiding place under a car by four armed men in dark suits.
“He yells, ‘Okay, I’m hit. I’m coming out,’” said Mr. Torn. “He threw out his gun. He crawled out with his hands in front of him, just like the men asked. They ran up and shot him dead.”
Rip Torn is 77. He did eight films in the past year—that makes over 100, including Cross Creek, for which he earned an Oscar nomination, and The Beastmaster, as the evil Maax. He also starred as Artie, the beloved old-school producer, on The Larry Sanders Show.
But this was 40 years ago: Mailer and Rip Torn had bumped into each other by chance. They’d been walking in opposite directions on 23rd Street when the sound of gunfire put them behind the lamppost, together.
“Norman always dressed to the nines,” said Mr. Torn. “He always had a suit, vest, tie, sometimes a hat. And so behind the lamppost, he turned to me and said, ‘Why you always dressed like a fuckin’ bum! Dress up, put on a nice shirt and tie, and you’ll get more respect.’”
Bang-bang-bang. After the shooting, the gunmen apparently recognized Norman Mailer and asked, “Who’s this guy?”
“He works for me; we’re talking about a job we’re getting ready to do. Can we leave now?” Mailer said.
Mailer and Mr. Torn began to walk together. Mailer asked what was up with the new film Terry Southern had written. Mailer meant Easy Rider, in which Mr. Torn had been offered the part that Jack Nicholson eventually played.
“I said, ‘They’re not going to pay me anything; they only offered me scale.’ Mailer said, ‘How much money you want?’ I said, ‘$3,500.’ He said, ‘I’ll give you $3,500.’” Which is how Mr. Torn ended up playing Norman Mailer’s crazed half-brother in Mailer’s film Maidstone, which included the improvisational fight scene that ended with Mailer chomping on Mr. Torn’s ear. You can still see the bite marks, 40 years later!
Mr. Torn points out that when he hit Mailer three times with the hammer, the head was “deliberately turned to the flat.” When Mailer was biting his ear, Mr. Torn called out, “Daddy, I need that ear to work!”
Rip Torn doesn’t like to fight, but he takes his fights seriously. He and Dennis Hopper got into it over dinner in Hollywood in 1967; Mr. Hopper apparently pulled a knife. When Mr. Hopper later told the story on The Tonight Show, he said it was Mr. Torn who pulled the knife. Mr. Torn went to court. “It’s the only time I ever sued and I won a million dollars,” said Mr. Torn. Actually, it was more like $900,000. But that was still pretty good money.
By the way, neither Mailer nor Mr. Torn reported the 23rd Street killing. They followed their own set of rules. Mr. Torn admires this quality in his pal Roger Clemens, his fellow Texan. Mr. Torn values loyalty.
Elmore Rual Torn Jr. was born in Temple, in central Texas, farm country. He studied acting at Texas A&M and the University of Texas, then moved to New York to join the Actors Studio and study under Lee Strasberg. Eventually, he worked with Elia Kazan in the movies. He followed Paul Newman as Chance Wayne in Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth on Broadway in 1960.
This year, he just wrapped Happy Tears with Parker Posey and Demi Moore in Philadelphia. He has a house in Lakeville, Conn., where he’s building a theater (he poured the concrete himself.) In New York, he spends time with wife number three, Amy Wright, in a place overlooking Washington Square Park, and in the West 22nd Street townhouse he bought with his second wife, the late and very great actress Geraldine Page. Some of his six children and grandchildren live there now.
Mr. Torn’s been working on his memoirs lately. So it’s all been at the fore of his mind. When one publishing house approached him to write his life story, they told him straight: We want the dirt. This makes him tearful. “There is no dirt in my family,” he said.
He wakes up every morning and tells himself to shut up. He teared up six times during the course of our time together: about his first wife, Ann Wedgeworth (they’re still friends); about Laurence Olivier (they worked out together at the Sig Klein gym.) He asked Olivier, when he was on his deathbed, “‘What are the greatest attributes for an actor to have?’ Larry said, ‘You mean besides eyes and teeth?’” Mr. Torn laughed a tearful laugh. “He said, ‘Physical strength.’”
Mr. Torn has a quick, determined gait. We made our way over to his and Amy Wright’s Washington Square apartment, where they live with their teenage daughter, Claire. He met Ms. Wright in New York back in the ’70s, during a production of Hamlet. She said she was struck mainly by how handsome he was. “He’s out there doing,” she said. “He’s either trying to get some sleep or he’s out there doing things.”
Earlier, we’d met for lunch at French Roast on Sixth Avenue. He arrived at noon sharp. Rip Torn is never late. He said he has never missed a day of work, only been late once, and that was on account of an earthquake while he was working on The Larry Sanders Show.e=”text-align: left” class=”text” align=”left”>