Reel Dad pays tribute to Rip Torn, the ultimate supporting actor
He smolders on screen with an intensity that reaches through the camera. No matter the size of the roles he plays, even when the parts offer just a few lines of dialogue, he invests the characterization with a seriousness of acting “method” from his years as a member of the Actors Studio. For more than 60 years on stage and screen, he plays just about every type of role, stretching his talent to portray men from many walks of life, even though he hails from the small town of Temple, Texas. And he waits until late in his career to achieve the recognition he has long deserved, when he finally becomes a household name, thanks to “The Larry Sanders Show.”
When Rip Torn died last week, at age 88, he left a tradition of the supporting player that hardly seems possible in today’s Hollywood. Never a top-lined actor, rarely seen in more than a handful of scenes in any of his more than 100 films and television shows, this theater-trained craftsman maintained that the integrity of the work matters more than the number of minutes on a screen, big or small. And, in a career filled with memorable appearances, he created characters we will never forget.
Lt. Walter Russel in “Pork Chop Hill” (1959). In one of his first movie roles — after appearing in many television dramas and winning a Tony nomination for the original Broadway production of “Sweet Bird of Youth” — Torn scores as a confident, patriotic soldier who believes in the reasons the United States must fight the Korean conflict. While the role is small, Torn introduces a layered approach to a screen portrayal that he will later take to each performance, always revealing more about a character than what may be initially obvious.
Judas in “King of Kings” (1961). In this biblical epic, at a time when Hollywood loves such widescreen stories, Torn is well cast as Judas, the disciple best remembered for betraying Jesus. While the production is over the top, and most of the performers exaggerate their portrayals to fill the Cinemascope lens, Torn makes us believe in the torment such a man would experience when confronting the possibility of such deception. As with all his early film work, he brings a magnetism that makes his role more significant than its time on screen would suggest.
Thomas J. Finley, Jr., in “Sweet Bird of Youth” (1962). In this stunning adaptation of the stage hit by Tennessee Williams, Torn offers a scintillating portrait of a greedy, spoiled and shallow young man who believes he is entitled to everything life and money should bring. While the film focuses on the confused priorities of an aging Hollywood actress — beautifully realized by Torn’s future wife Geralding Page — the supporting player makes sure he is seen and remembered.
Marsh Turner in “Cross Creek” (1983). More than 25 years after making his movie debut, Torn finally receives an Academy Award nomination for his striking performance of a backwoods hunter in Martin Ritt’s captivating look at the life of author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Although Torn ultimately loses the award to Jack Nicholson for “Terms of Endearment,” the nomination puts him in a new limelight as a reliable supporting player who can make any role come to life.
Chief Zed in “Men in Black” (1997). After playing so many “heavy” roles on stage and screen, Torn gets to have some fun in this blockbuster adaptation of the comic book series. The actor’s creative approach to the role opens up new doors for comic portrayals in the later years of his career, including memorable turns in “Wonder Boys” and a remake of “Yours, Mine and Ours.”
For so many years, through countless performances, Rip Torn reminds us the value supporting players bring to any film while never taking himself too seriously. When he abruptly left the cast of “Easy Rider” while it was shooting in 1969, word got around that Torn might be unreliable. He replied, “Unrealiable? How so? In all my years in the theater, I never missed a performance!” Thank you, Rip Torn, for always delivering performances we remember.