Lawrence Tierney, 82; Actor Was Real-Life Tough Guy


Lawrence Tierney, a veteran character actor and onetime B-movie leading man whose two-fisted, tough-guy image on screen in the 1940s and ‘50s rivaled that of his off-screen personal life, has died. He was 82.

Tierney, who suffered several strokes in recent years and had recent bouts with pneumonia, died in his sleep Tuesday during a brief stay at a Los Angeles nursing home.

Best known for his gangster roles in an 80-film career that spanned 50 years, Tierney’s most memorable credits include the title role in the 1945 B-movie classic “Dillinger” and the leader of a pack of vicious killers in Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 crime drama “Reservoir Dogs.”


Off-screen, the actor’s arrests for drunken brawls at bars and Hollywood parties took a heavy toll on his once-promising Hollywood career in the 1950s. Booze was always at the root of his misbehavior, which included tearing a public phone off the wall, hitting a waiter in the face with a sugar bowl, breaking a college student’s jaw and attempting to choke a cab driver.

“I haven’t had a drink in, oh, five years now,” Tierney said in his clipped, tough-guy voice during a 1987 interview. “I finally wised up. I’d say it was about time. Heck, I threw away about seven careers through drink.”

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1919, Tierney was a star member of his high school track team. He received an athletic scholarship to Manhattan College but left school after two years to work as a laborer on the New York Aqueduct. After traveling around the country and working a variety of odd jobs, the strong-featured Tierney landed work as a catalog model.

Encouraged by an acting coach, Tierney joined the Black Friars theater group and later the American-Irish Theater, where he was spotted by a talent scout and signed by RKO Studios in 1943.

After supporting roles in pictures such as “The Ghost Ship” and “The Falcon Out West,” Tierney achieved sudden stardom in 1945, playing the vicious gangster John Dillinger in “Dillinger,” while on loan to independent producers.

The die was cast. Billed as “the handsome bad man of the screen” when “Dillinger” was released, Tierney returned to RKO where he portrayed tough guys on both sides of the law. He starred in such films as “San Quentin,” “Step by Step,” “The Devil Thumbs a Ride,” “Born to Kill,” “Bodyguard,” “Kill or Be Killed” and “The Hoodlum.”


He also played the villain who caused the train wreck in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 best-picture Oscar-winner, “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

But by then Tierney’s off-set misadventures were taking a toll on his career.

Headlines of the period tell the story: “Film ‘Dillinger’ Booked on Drunk Charge.” “Court Warns Film Actor to Be Good.” “Actor Tierney Must Sleep on Jail Floor.” “Tierney Goes to Jail Again.”

By the early 1960s, the onetime B-movie leading man had been reduced to small parts. After appearing in John Cassavetes’ “A Child Is Waiting” in 1963, he moved to France for several years. But his scrapes with the law continued in Europe, as they did when he returned to the United States in the late ‘60s.

Back living in New York, he was known as a tough guy who drank and fought with ex-cons, cops and hoods, according to a nephew, Michael Tierney. In 1973, Tierney was stabbed during a brawl outside a New York bar near the scruffy hotel where he lived.

Two years later, he was questioned and released by New York police in connection with the apparent suicide leap of a 24-year-old woman from the fourth-floor window of her midtown apartment. Tierney told police he had arrived for a visit when the woman “just went out the window.”

In those years, Tierney worked variously as a bartender, a steel worker, a crane operator and even as the driver of a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park. He acted sporadically, landing small parts in films such as Otto Preminger’s “Such Good Friends” (1971), Andy Warhol’s “Bad” (1977), and Cassavetes’ “Gloria” (1980) and “Arthur” (1981).


Returning to Hollywood in late 1983, the gravely voiced Tierney, by then overweight and bald, rekindled his acting career. He guest-starred on television shows such as “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Remington Steele,” “Fame” and “Hunter,” and had a recurring role on “Hill Street Blues.”

Tierney--the brother of actor Scott Brady, who died in 1985--also appeared in “Prizzi’s Honor,” “The Naked Gun” and “Tough Guys Don’t Dance,” in which he played Ryan O’Neal’s hard-drinking father.

When his uncle returned to Hollywood, Michael Tierney said, “he was much better behaved. He was still Larry for those people who knew him--he was still a tough guy, but not in jail all the time or anything like that.

“The people who knew Larry knew that wasn’t all there was to Larry. He was a wacky, kind of quirky, comical guy, and a very nice man to a lot of people.”

Tierney is survived by a daughter, Elizabeth Tierney, of Park City, Utah.