Listen to Austin 360 Radio

From the archives: Rip Torn's path to Broadway started at UT

Charles Ealy American-Statesman staff
Actor Rip Torn. [Contributed by Austin Film Society 2011]

(Award-winning television, film and theater actor Rip Torn, who was a native Texan, has died at the age of 88, his publicist announced July 9. This story was published on March 10, 2011, when Torn was being inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame.)

When Rip Torn was attending the University of Texas in the early 1950s, he studied acting under James W. Moll and got a piece of unsolicited advice that changed his life.

"He was teaching a survey course on television and the stage, and he really put down television bad," Torn says. "So I raised my hand and said, 'Sir, with all due respect, if any of us are to get anywhere in this business, it'll probably be in television.' And he said, 'Torn, I'll see you in my office.' "

Torn says he thought he was in big trouble, but that Moll told him that he said what he did because he was speaking to a class full of people who were going on to be teachers, and that they'd probably never enter the entertainment business. "But he told me that I was going to be a professional actor. And he said I needed to go to New York and look up Pat Hingle."

The young Torn did indeed head for New York, where he looked up Hingle, a UT graduate starring in the original Broadway production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" by Tennessee Williams. Hingle played the conniving Gooper, the father of a bunch of "no-neck monsters" who caused so much misery for Maggie the Cat.

Torn says that he and Hingle became friends, with Torn visiting Hingle's home and helping him paint the kitchen. "Hingle kept me advised about a possible understudy job," Torn says. "And the production had gone through about seven understudies, all of whom were leaving New York for Hollywood. So they finally came to me and asked me to be the understudy, but only if I would sign a run-of-the-play contract."

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1955, and Torn began a long and successful acting career that led to tonight's award in Austin: being inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame, along with Renée Zellweger, John Hawkes (an Oscar nominee this year for best supporting actor in "Winter's Bone") and Spoon.

>> PHOTOS: Rip Torn through the years

Unlike co-honoree Zellweger, Torn has had a big career in theater — and on television, the medium that Moll long ago disparaged.

He was in the original 1959 Broadway production of Williams' "Sweet Bird of Youth," along with Paul Newman and the late Geraldine Page, whom Torn married in 1963. He went on to star in 1962's "Daughter of Silence," 1963's "Strange Interlude" and 1964's "Blues for Mister Charlie."

His film roles have been highly eclectic, ranging from Norman Mailer's "Beyond the Law" in 1968 to "Men in Black" in 1997.

Torn says one of his favorite movie performances was in 1983's "Cross Creek," directed by Martin Ritt and starring Mary Steenburgen as the Florida writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Torn played Rawlings' crusty backwoods neighbor, and he earned an Oscar nomination for the role.

"I got the director to buy me plane fare and send me down to Florida to do some research, two weeks ahead of time," Torn says. "And I went there and found some of the people that Miss Rawlings wrote about, and that helped a lot in my preparation."

His other favorite role was in the 1991 comedy "Defending Your Life." Torn says he had great fun in making the movie "simply because I got to play with the great Lee Grant and Albert Brooks."

In 1969, he was cast as the lawyer in "Easy Rider," but was replaced in the role by Jack Nicholson after Torn and director Dennis Hopper were involved in a knife fight. Torn says that "Hopper tried to cut me with a knife, and I was able to disarm him pretty quickly because of my martial arts training" from his two years spent at Texas A&M University, where he was in the ROTC.

Hopper, however, claimed in the 1990s on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" that Torn was the one who pulled a knife.

In 1999, Torn sued Hopper for defamation, and Torn was eventually awarded more than $900,000 in damages.

When asked about the ordeal, Torn says, "My wife (the actress Amy Wright) doesn't want me to talk about it much."

Despite success in theater and film, Torn is probably most known to American audiences for his television roles, especially on "30 Rock" and "The Larry Sanders Show." In the latter series, Torn played Artie, a talk-show producer. The role earned Torn six Emmy nominations, and he won best supporting actor honors in a comedy series in 1996.

Torn, who's now 80, spends most of time at his homes in New York and Connecticut — far away from Taylor, the Central Texas town where he grew up.

His father, Elmore Rual Torn, was an agricultural lobbyist, and his mother, Mary Spacek Torn, was the daughter of A.A. ("Double A") Spacek, a former mayor and postmaster of Granger, a few miles north of Taylor. Mary Spacek Torn was the sister of Edwin Arnold Spacek, the father of Oscar-winning actress Sissy Spacek.

When he was a young Texas boy, Torn says, he spent a lot of time with his grandfather "Double A," and he still laughs about the memories.

"One time, I was with him and he was asked by a friend: 'What's your best bird dog, the setter or the pointer?' And my grandfather took a look at me and said, 'Sonny boy, here, is my best bird dog.' "

>> OBITUARY: Rip Torn, Emmy-Winning Star of The Larry Sanders Show, Dead at 88

Speaking to the American-Statesman by telephone from New York, Torn says he "likes to live in the East and visit Texas" these days.

He says he is heading to his home in Connecticut before coming to Texas this week to pick up the Hall of Fame honors.

"I like the Connecticut place because I can dig," he says. "I don't sit around. I've got too much to do."

Torn explains that he has enjoyed digging since going to work at 14 for a gas pipeline company. "I know how to dig. I dig my own garden. I don't use machines. I can dig all day long."

He has a big garden in Connecticut, he says. "And I planted all the trees around my house," he says. "Now the big battle is to keep people from picking up my apples and other fruit. One day I found a guy in my yard, and he was shaking my trees, trying to get the fruit. I told him I had a sign that says no trespassing. I even drew a skull and crossbones on the sign.

"He argued with me, and I finally said, 'You can crawl through the fence and pick them up, but you can't shake the tree,' but he said he wanted fresh fruit, not some rotten fruit on the ground. And that's when I told him I'd go get my shotgun if I saw him around the house again."

When this elicits a chuckle from the interviewer, Torn starts laughing. "That's what I love about Texas. People will laugh when I bring up a shotgun. Up here in Connecticut, they get all alarmed."