Skip to content
Tom Runyon dies at 89; fiction writer and actor shared name with Hollywood Hills canyon
Tom Runyon, who shared his family name with a Hollywood Hills canyon and his simple fare at his rough-hewn roadhouse on Mulholland Highway with the famous and famously interesting, has died. He was 89.
Runyon, a fiction writer and occasional actor, died July 17 of cancer at his longtime home in Malibu, said his son, Morgan.
His ties to the gorge in the heart of the Hollywood Hills date to 1919 -- the year before he was born -- when his uncle, coal baron Carmen Runyon, bought what was then known as No Man's Canyon, gave it his name and built a hunting lodge.
Young Tom learned to hunt in Runyon Canyon, giving him an appreciation for the outdoors. While attending University High, he hid a rifle in his locker so that on his way to his home in Brentwood he could shoot pigeons to feed the falcons that he raised, his son said.
The Old Place, the restaurant-saloon he opened with his wife, Barbara, in Agoura in 1969, reflected an Old West that had long disappeared, just as the city landscape of his youth had. He had played in avocado orchards on Hollywood Boulevard and developed a taste for the lima beans farmed next to his house in Brentwood.
The aptly named Old Place took root in a structure built around 1914 at the juncture of Mulholland Highway and Troutdale Drive. It once housed a general store and post office for Cornell, a hamlet long ago folded into Agoura.
"It might as well be the Yukon," a Times review of the restaurant concluded in 1985. "Funky and rugged, booths as crude as stable stalls, a heavy old wood bar and a beer-drinking crowd of men that are men and women that are women. . . ."
The Old Place, invariably described as "ramshackle," had five booths, two entrees -- steak and clams -- and a single waitress, Barbara. Tom was both cook and dishwasher.
"It was about simple food cooked well," said his son, who plans to reopen the restaurant, which has been closed for a few weeks. "They would say, 'You get what you get and you don't get upset.' "
Actress Ali MacGraw used to frequent the Old Place with actor Steve McQueen when they were a married couple in the 1970s and living in Trancas Canyon.
"There were western frontier swinging doors that would burst open and in would come God only knew who," MacGraw told The Times last week. "It was just the polar opposite of Malibu 2010. . . . No one was in stilettos or a haircut of the week. It was a hide-out."
There was "a madness to the place," MacGraw said, and "it had this most extraordinary collection of people," sort of "Malibu renegades."
The famous -- actor Robert Mitchum, singer Bob Dylan, director Sam Peckinpah -- could be found mingling with bikers and other locals fit for central casting. In 1972, actor Jason Robards was driving home from the Old Place when he had a near-fatal accident. The restaurant was reportedly also a favorite of Ronald and Nancy Reagan when they owned a nearby ranch.
Runyon "was a total character," MacGraw said. "He was so adored and really smart."
Thomas Mercein Runyon was born April 27, 1920, in Washington, D.C., and moved to Hollywood with his family when he was 3.
His father, Charles Runyon II, was a State Department lawyer, and his mother, Cornelia, an artist and sculptor. His older brother, Charles, was an assistant dean at Yale Law School from 1958 to 1963.
After his father died when Runyon was 7, the family moved to Brentwood. Runyon spent most of his high school years at Cate, a boarding school in Carpinteria.
He joined the Army Air Forces during World War II and rose to the rank of major, flying cargo missions in North Africa and Italy.
After the war, he studied writing at Columbia University and wrote fiction for Argosy magazine.
In the late 1950s and early '60s, he rented an apartment above the carousel on the Santa Monica Pier. He married Barbara in 1961 and the couple eventually moved to the home on the west end of Malibu that his mother had built in 1937.
He had roles in several films, partly because he would fly to wherever his friends were making movies, then get paid to essentially play himself, his son said.
Peckinpah cast Runyon "in a wonderful part in 'The Getaway,' " MacGraw said of the 1972 film she made with McQueen. "The scenes with Tom as one of the bad guys, he steals 'em."
In addition to his wife, Runyon is survived by a daughter, Alessandra, an artist, of Santa Fe, N.M.; son Morgan, an art director of commercials and music videos, of Topanga Canyon and Malibu; and three grandchildren.