Rip Torn was not a comedian, per se. Torn was a Texan, though, true and through.
Born Elmore Rual Torn, Jr. on Feb. 6, 1931 in Temple, Texas, by Thelma Mary (Spacek) and Elmore Rual Torn, Sr., who gave their son the nickname of “Rip,” which was his daddy’s nickname, as well as his uncle’s, and his cousin’s. Young Rip didn’t quite follow into the family business, preferring to study acting over agriculture at Texas A&M and the University of Texas. He ventured to Hollywood at first, but wound up in New York City studying with Lee Strasburg at the Actors Studio, then onto Broadway and eventually feature films. He’d win Obie Awards in 1967-1968, and an Oscar nomination for his supporting work in the 1983 movie, Cross Creek. In between, he managed to get fired from a role on Easy Rider, and replaced by Jack Nicholson.
He had a full and rich life and career before it all turned comedic. You can see and hear Torn tell David Letterman about getting bitten once by Norman Mailer.
It began to turn after he co-starred in the 1980s cult classic, The Beastmaster, as a holy man. That’s the first time I ever saw him onscreen. And as a child of the ’80s, I’d often get Rip Torn and Rip Taylor confused for one another (Taylor is still alive today at 84). Back then, Taylor was the more memorable flamboyant comic on everyone’s TVs.
But everything changed for Torn’s career after his role as the lawyer for Albert Brooks in his 1991 film, Defending Your Life.
That part led Torn to Garry Shandling and his seminal Emmy-winning performance as Shandling’s producer on HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show. He was nominated six years in a row for his role as Artie.
From there, Torn went on to equally memorable roles as the head of operations at Men In Black, Tom Green’s dad in Freddy Got Fingered, a dodgeball guru in DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story, and the boss’s boss, Don Geiss on 30 Rock.
Torn was inducted into the Texas Hall of Fame in 2011. He died at his home in rural Connecticut on Tuesday, surrounded by his family. He was 88.