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This Former Pit Bull Is (Almost) a Pussycat

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Up close and personal, prowling around his movie trailer in jeans and black cowboy boots, Rip Torn looks even shorter than he appears on screen. It’s his reputation that’s bigger-than-life.

At age 66, Elmore Rual Torn Jr. of Temple, Texas, remains one of the great bad boys of American theater and film. (Rip is a family nickname--his uncle Roland is known as Big Rip.) In a 40-year career that stretches back to being Ben Gazzara’s understudy on Broadway in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Torn made his name playing rough-hewn daredevils and historical characters like Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Walt Whitman.

Unfortunately, his great parts have rarely been in high-profile projects, be it his pill-popping country singer in “Payday” or his stealthy Nixon in the TV movie “Blind Ambition.” He was nominated for best supporting actor in 1983 for his table-bashing backwoodsman in “Cross Creek,” a performance that moved Pauline Kael to write: “Rip Torn doesn’t seem afraid of anything; he gives a demonstration of a wild-man actor’s art.”

Torn’s off-camera exploits have been equally volatile, with stories of showdowns sometimes ending with punches being thrown. Torn insists that the accounts are overblown or inaccurate. When Tony Perkins fired Torn from a Broadway production of “Steambath,” the papers were told he took a swing at Perkins--a charge Torn denies. Torn got into a brawl with Norman Mailer during the making of “Maidstone,” which climaxed with Mailer’s taking a Mike Tyson-style bite out of Torn’s ear.

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For years, movie encyclopedias have described Torn as the man who made Jack Nicholson’s career by walking off “Easy Rider.” Torn says that he had never had the part. When Dennis Hopper, the film’s director, repeated the charge a few years ago on “The Tonight Show,” adding that Torn had threatened him with a knife, Torn sued Hopper and won a $475,000 judgment for false and defamatory charges.

In 1992, Torn was cast as Artie, the crafty producer of “The Larry Sanders Show,” Garry Shandling’s talk-show-within-a-show HBO series. The role earned Torn an Emmy and reinvented him as a comic actor, leading to his current turn as Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones’ boss in “Men in Black.” Torn also can be heard in Disney’s “Hercules,” as the voice of Zeus. For the past month, he’s been filming “Senseless,” a comedy that stars Damon Wayans as the guinea pig in a school-lab experiment gone wrong.

Playing comedy apparently hasn’t smoothed over his rough edges. “Senseless” director Penelope Spheeris whoops with laughter when asked if Torn has mellowed. “I like Rip,” she says. “But he’s an irascible old [expletive]. When we were having a big fight, I tried to appeal to his sensitive side by asking him if he had any children. And he said, ‘Six children and two grandchildren. What the hell’s that got to do with anything?’ ”

Interviewing Rip Torn is not for the faint of heart. I first met him in the late 1970s, when he was playing Stanley Kowalski in a production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Too young to know better, I asked if he might be too old for the part. After barking out a few choice insults, he challenged me to a duel of push-ups. It was no contest. After Torn did 50 push-ups without breaking a sweat, he got up and growled, “Next question.”

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Question: Does it feel strange to be in a summer blockbuster movie?

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Answer: No, I’ve always wanted to be a success. Hell, when I was young I wanted to be Elvis. I remember when Elvis died, my late wife, Geraldine Page, looked at me and said, “So, do you still want to be Elvis?”

Q: People often cast you as an authority figure: Artie the producer, the guy giving orders to Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith in “Men in Black.” In the movie you’re doing now, you run a brokerage firm. What makes you such a good boss?

A: It’s funny, the most authority I ever had was being an MP in the Army, where all I really did was direct traffic. But if I put on a suit, I look like a powerful guy. Maybe it’s from my classical Shakespearean training. If you’re a stage actor, you’ve got to have the voice of command.

Q: You and Tommy Lee Jones are both Texans. Had you ever worked together before?

A: We did “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” for TV. I played Big Daddy, he played Brick. Jessica Lange was Maggie. Tommy Lee kept saying, “You really think you can handle playing Big Daddy? He had to kick men around, maybe kill a few.” So we had a long talk about things, and I started talking about Texas and Tommy said, “You’re a city man, what would you know about it?” I showed him my Texas driver’s license, and he still didn’t believe me. So I told him, “Call my mother. She’ll tell you I was born in Texas.”

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And about a week later, my mother called and said, “I had this wonderful conversation with the sweetest boy in the world. He says he’s a great friend of yours.” After that, we got along fine.

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Q: It’s hard to imagine anyone calling Tommy Lee Jones the sweetest boy in the world.

A: After we’d been on “Men in Black” for a while, Tommy Lee said, “You must hate me. I’m getting all the parts that used to go to you.” And I said, “To the contrary, you’ve taken a big burden off my shoulders.” And he said, “What’s that?” And I told him, “Now you’re the guy everyone says is the meanest man in Hollywood.”

Q: How did you like working with “Men in Black” director Barry Sonnenfeld?

A: Someone asked me how he directs a movie. And I told them that Barry would come into my dressing room, hold up a fine cigar and he’d say, “If you do this scene right, I’ll give you this cigar.” When we were shooting the film, Barry had this smoking tent, and whenever I’d walk by, he’d say, “Hey, Rip, if you do a good job today, you can have another cigar.”

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Q: In “Hercules,” you do the voice of the mighty Zeus. How do you act like a god?

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A: I used a real King Lear-type Shakespearean voice. It’s all about good vowels and precise diction. I once got a review from Brendan Gill in the New Yorker who said, “Rip Torn was very good indeed except when faced with passions which no human being could fathom. At such times, he began with a murmur and concluded with a roar, hoping to catch the appropriate tone.” [laughs] You just keep trying different things until they say, “That’s it!” Then you get them to play it back so you can figure out what the hell it was they liked.

Q: Do you approach comic acting differently than drama?

A: The thing about good acting is to keep it human. You play a tragedy like a comedy and comedy like a tragedy. When I’m working with Garry Shandling and he sees that I’m upset about something, he’ll tell me, “Don’t get mad, get funny.” For me, doing comedy is a hoot. I always got laughs, but it used to get me in trouble. Now I’m getting paid for it.

Q: What was your first meeting with Shandling like?

A: I did 90 minutes of improvisation with him. My agent told me I didn’t have to read for the part. But Garry threw a script at me and said, “You want to read?” And I said, “No.” And then, in a split second, I said, “But I will.” [laughs] Best thing I ever said in my life.

Q: When did you know you got the part?

A: Garry said to me, “Doing ‘Defending Your Life’ [the 1991 Albert Brooks film for which Torn won critical kudos as a dryly comic attorney] must’ve gotten you a lot of comedy work.” And I said, “Not a damn job.” And Garry said, “Well, it got you this one.” His only worry was whether I could sustain a TV series. And I said, “Listen, I’ve done Broadway plays for two years straight. At the end of the season, I’ll be the last man standing.”

Q: What is the key to Artie’s relationship with Larry?

A: Artie is Larry’s pit bull. Actually, I told Garry I was Larry’s wolverine, but I don’t think he knew what a wolverine was. Artie is a warrior. At first my character was more professorial, he even smoked a pipe. But I made him more of a street guy. People always talk about the old-time Hollywood producers as if they were these august fellows. But when Louis B. Mayer got mad at [producer] Walter Wanger, he slugged him twice in one day.

Q: Well, you’re no slouch when it comes to slugging. What happened with you and Norman Mailer on “Maidstone”? Was it a real fight?

A: Norman had told me to set up a phony assassination attempt on him, for the film, but to catch him by surprise. And maybe I really did surprise him, because we got into a fight and he went a little crazy. Norman tried to bite me, but the damage was minimal compared to Tyson and Holyfield. I remember telling him, “Hey, dad, I need this ear to work with.”

Q: But you never slugged Tony Perkins after he had you fired from “Steambath”?

A: I knew I’d get fired. He’d already fired Dick Shawn. I told my agent to get me an iron-clad contract, because I knew if they’d fire Shawn, they’d definitely fire me. After one of my first shows, the producers came to my dressing room, said I was terrible and fired me. And I must admit, I wanted to fight. I said in my best John Wayne voice: “If there’s a man here among you, step forward!” They told the press I got drunk and destroyed the set and hit Tony Perkins. And I said, “Come on, who would want to hit Tony Perkins?”

Q: So I got off easy, just having to do push-ups.

A: Remember, you said that to a guy who hadn’t worked in years and was a little insecure about getting any more jobs.

Q: Are you less insecure, now that you’re working regularly?

A: I’m probably more relaxed. I used to get hurt when I was falsely accused of making trouble. I may be an actor, but I’m still a human being. I’ve had directors curse me and throw apple boxes at me. But I think I’ve earned the right to be treated with respect. I just don’t give people trouble anymore. I say, “Excuse me, I only fight with friends.” And I walk away.


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