LOS ANGELES — Rip Torn, the free-spirited Texan who overcame his quirky name to become a distinguished actor in television, theater, and movies, such as “Men in Black,” and win an Emmy in his 60s for “The Larry Sanders Show,” has died. He was 88.
Torn died Tuesday afternoon at his home with his wife, Amy Wright, and daughters Katie Torn and Angelica Page by his side, according to his publicist Rick Miramontez. No cause of death was given.
His work on stage and screen spanned seven decades, ranging from an early career of dark, threatening roles to iconic comedic performances later in life.
After acclaimed performances in “Cross Creek,” ‘’Sweet Bird of Youth” and other dramas, Torn turned to comedy to capture his Emmy as the bombastic, ethically challenged television producer in “The Larry Sanders Show.” Created by and starring Garry Shandling, HBO’s spoof of TV talk shows aired from 1992 to 1998 and is widely credited with inspiring such satirical programs as “30 Rock” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Torn played Agent Zed in the first two “Men in Black,” movies, which starred Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith.
Born Elmore Rual Torn, the actor adopted the name Rip in his boyhood, following the tradition of his father and uncle. It was the subject of endless ridicule during his early days as a stage actor in New York, and fellow drama students urged him to change it.
With customary stubbornness, he refused, eventually overcoming the jokes with a series of powerful performances that led to his being regarded, along with Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and James Dean, as actors of a postwar generation who brought tense realism to their craft. He was also a political activist who joined James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte and other cultural and civil rights leaders for a frank and emotional 1963 meeting with then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy about the country’s treatment of blacks.
Torn made his film debut in 1956 in an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “Baby Doll,” and within a few years was a respected film and television actor, working on occasions with his second wife, Geraldine Page. At the Actors Studio, he gained the attention of Elia Kazan, who hired him as understudy to Alex Nicol, then playing Brick Pollitt in the Tennessee Williams classic, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Toward the end of the show’s Broadway run, Torn took over the role of the alcoholic, emotionally troubled former football hero.
Cast later in a “U.S. Steel Hour” production for television, he was told to either change his name or forfeit the role. He threatened to return to his native Texas but finally agreed to be credited as Eric Torn. He was billed as Rip Torn thereafter. His success eventually inspired a younger cousin to take up acting, too — Oscar winner Sissy Spacek.
Other film credits included “Critics Choice” and “The Cincinnati Kid.” In Albert Brooks’ “Defending Your Life,” he was featured as a gregarious attorney in the afterlife.
Brooks tweeted Tuesday night, “R.I.P Rip Torn. He was so great in Defending Your Life. I’ll miss you Rip, you were a true original.”
On television he played such figures as Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson and Walt Whitman.
His career hit a dry spell in the 1970s, and he blamed it on the buzz in Hollywood at the time that he was difficult to work with, a reputation sealed when tension on the set of “Easy Rider” led to his being replaced by Jack Nicholson for the 1969 release and missing out on one of the biggest hits of the era.