Saturday, July 20, 2019

The smiling renegade: the many lives of Deceased Artiste Rip Torn

You give a man a nickname, he has to live up to it. The wonderful actor Rip Torn, who died on July 9 at the age of 88, dealt with a moniker so unlikely that a lesser man would’ve been felled by it. Not Rip he was a performer who gave himself over to his craft and at various times seemed to be living like the larger-than-life characters he often played.

The man clearly had an appetite and unslakeable thirst for life, and so it was always a pleasure to see him show up in a film or TV show. He established his name in theater and went back to it often throughout his career. But for most of us who were his fans (and I can easily qualify both my late father and I as such), Rip was an All-American wild man, an actor could not be forgotten and often elevated the lousier films he was in.

I encountered the man only twice, for extremely brief periods of time, but both events are burned into my brain. The second one was at a tribute to Torn’s films that was held at the Anthology Film Archives back in March of 2009. I did a pitch for an interview directly to Mr. Torn and noted that we could publicize anything he wanted in exchange for his time (making clear the Funhouse is a non-profit show). He slapped me on the shoulder and laughed, saying, “I’ve been paid less!!!”

The occasion at which this occurred was one of those classic events in NYC that, for whatever reason, didn’t get the imprimatur of being cool, so it was very underattended. I think I estimated that about 25 people showed up on a Saturday afternoon, right smack in the middle of the East Village. The majority of that number seemed to know Rip’s kids, so the “civilians” were few in number. What everyone missed, though, was a blissful trip through Rip’s own favorites of his big- and little-screen work.

The young Torn, theater star.
The screening included several items, starting out with a television show in which Rip played a juvenile delinquent. Among the other items were complete shows: his depiction of Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” and the “Arthur After Hours” episode of “The Larry Sanders Show.”

Rip was there to answer questions and offer comments he started the latter while the recordings were playing, saying stuff out loud in the audience. When he was doing the Q&A an audience member asked him if he had studied dance, since he did a very nicely executed jump in the juvenile delinquent role. He said he had indeed studied dance and could still do stage falls. He proceeded to demonstrate, as all of us in the theater winced, thinking he might really break a bone or joint. But, of course, he made the fall and never hit the stage and then wanted to try another.

The Whitman show was made for a prime-time CBS Bicentennial series of programs and is a great example of educational TV addressing serious issues in the life of an artist by not really addressing them (as in, who is Brad Davis’ character in relation to Whitman?). The lead performance by Torn is indeed wonderful.

Torn frequently acknowledged in interviews that “The Larry Sanders Show” rejuvenated his career and got him many jobs some of which one avoids like the plague (although Freddy Got Fingered does have its bad-film advocates), but the work did pay the bills. He was *always* good in the show, but the writers and producers really let him shine in the “Arthur After Hours” episode, which thankfully is online for free:

The most amazing thing shown that afternoon was a film that apparently Torn had the only copy of his son Tony noted that they had discovered a print of it in a closet. It’s a b&w low-budget experimental short from 1969 titled “The Bearding of the President” that features Torn reciting monologues from Richard III as Richard Nixon (putty nose and all). As I remember it, a psychedelic band is heard in the background and we see TV monitors on which appear the other cast members from the stage production Rip had recently done in which he played “Richard Nixon III” (Geraldine Page and Al Freeman Jr. are the two I remember). The film is missing from Torn's filmography on IMDB (as of July 2019).

The weirdest "showing" of this film I found online was that Bob Fass, the legendary free-form talk-radio host on WBAI, played the film's audio on his radio show one evening in February 1976 (with Rip and producer Mark Weiss in the studio).

Rip as Nixon in "Blind Ambition" (1979).
It’s a wonderful short and I hope it will materialize somewhere someday. I asked Tony Torn about the history of the film and he mentioned that it began as a stage production of the Shakespeare play but also spawned a few live performances with Rip doing the speeches as the Jefferson Airplane played behind him! That is confirmed by a passage in Grace Slick’s memoir Somebody to Love found here.

Rip seemed to have a connection with the Jefferson Airplane for a short time at the end of the Sixties: He modeled for the cover of the band’s Long John Silver album, and his bad-ass pirate image was also used on the cover for the single of the title track. He also can be seen enjoying the Airplane playing on a Manhattan rooftop (with a lady who seems to be in a stage of dishabille) in the Godard/Leacock/Pennebaker film “One AM.” (see below for more info)

“The Bearding of the President” is mentioned in a study of Nixon in the media. Producer Mark Weiss spoke about the film in a Tweet about Torn’s death: “Very saddened at the loss of my old friend Rip Torn. He was a force of nature. @BarbaraKopple and I worked with him on a batshit crazy short film called “The Bearding of the President” (Nixon) in 1973. If we can find a copy we’ll put it online.”

Many New Yorkers encountered Rip on the streets. I first said hello and briefly chatted with him in the men’s room of a corporate center where an awards ceremony was taking place. The ceremony in question was the D.W. Griffith Awards (a bash thrown by the National Board of Review, a mystery panel of filmgoers whose one goal is to beat the other film-voting bodies to the punch). I was one of the writers for the magazine Films in Review, which was a product of the NBR. Rip was at the awards in conjunction with the release of Where the Rivers Flow North (1994).

There were bathrooms both behind the stage, for the celebs, and out in the lobby, for the rabble. Rip wound up in the wrong one – the one for the public. I was taking a break from the show and had to speak to him when he reached the sink. What to say to a guy who has given an incredible number of performances you’ve adored? (Should I mention that my father deeply loved his work and called me “Big Boy” as a child, based on Rip’s intonation of that name in Coppola’s insanely wonderful urban screwball farce You’re a Big Boy Now?)

I instantly dug something out of my back pocket. Mentioned that I loved all of his work, was devoted to “Larry Sanders,” but most especially was taken by the hauntingly grim “Naked City” episode he did in 1962 with Tuesday Weld, called “A Case Study of Two Savages,” in which the duo play fictional variations on Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate. Not missing a beat, Rip instantly replied, “You know that Arthur Penn showed that to the crew of Bonnie and Clyde?” I did not and said so.

I could think of nothing further to bug him with and was so stunned that he had a piece of trivia right at his fingertips that I just shook his hand (we were all finished at the sinks) and said thanks. Even in microscopic encounters, the man gave off “Artie energy.” We never know why a particular performer draws him or herself to our attention but I’d readily volunteer that it happens without thinking when we *believe* they are the character, or the character is simply them in a magnified state.

Torn fused with his characters to the extent that, while they had different backgrounds, they always had a glimpse of his rebellion, madness, and Texan stoic sentiment (as when Rip addresses Norman Mailer’s crying kids in Maidstone after the fight he’s had with their dad, saying that “You know it’s okay – and *your dad* knows it’s okay...”)

I talk a lot on the Funhouse TV show about the American cinema of the late Sixties and early Seventies, which now and forever is “the gift that keeps on giving and giving and….” One of the many signs that the films were indeed quite unlike anything that came before or after is that unique and “off-Hollywood” performers like Torn who starred in countless theatrical productions finally got starring roles in films.

While most folks writing about Rip’s death instantly went to his 1990s comedy credits (“Larry Sanders,” Defending Your Life), those who wanted to center in on his earlier film work invariably landed at the fight he had on-camera with Norman Mailer in Maidstone (1970).

Rip and Norman, in happier times.
Photo by Susan Wood.
I’ve talked about Maidstone many times on the Funhouse and even in these pages at one point I uploaded the moment *after* the fight, which contains amazing exchanges between Torn and Mailer, in which Torn basically explains Norman’s own film to him and gives him an honorific (“I salute the champ of shit”).

From the same period, though, are other truly mind-bending moments with Rip. A handful of them come in the unfinished experiment “One AM,” a collaboration by Jean-Luc Godard with Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker (assembled by Pennebaker into a film called One PM). We spoke about this film on the show with Pennebaker, and he noted that Godard at that time believed a political revolution was imminent, particularly in America.

So, who did Uncle Jean pick to play the spirit of the revolution? Well, why not old Rip? There are several memorable scenes starring Rip and one unforgettable moment where we see Godard giving him direction (Leacock and Pennebaker thus giving us a look at Godard’s work with actors; something that was pretty much never seen in documentaries). In one sequence Rip is dressed up as a Confederate soldier in a classroom of predominantly black students. Torn discusses the uniform with them and what it represents and then encourages them to fight back at him, even giving one student a toy machine gun. Godard is present throughout and giving Rip direction in the moment, which is very unlike Uncle Jean....

The "maverick" period of the late Sixties/early Seventies was awash in antiheroes, so who better than Torn to be one of the movie stars of that era? He played the lead role in Joseph Strick’s adaptation of Tropic of Cancer (1970) but was even more intense in the effectively claustrophobic psychodrama Coming Apart (1969) as a shrink who covertly films the encounters he has with women in his "bachelor apartment" (he's married).

The film is similar to Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary (1967), in that we’re watching a man who is compulsively filming his life. Here, though, there’s an incredibly creepy aspect to it, and the device would’ve merely been a cheap gimmick without great actors in the lead roles. Rip played a LOT of villains and thus was able to shade his characters so that we understand why the women around this doc find him so damned charming. But *we* know better….

Filmmaker Milton Moses Ginsberg certainly drew on many aspects of underground film, most prominently by using the off-kilter framing of Warhol, Morrissey, and company. He incorporates the “pop” noises the film-within-the-film makes when it starts and stops; Morrissey had included an annoying beep in the transitions in his Heat in ’68.

Torn’s shrink is filming the women from a camera secreted in a casing that he declares a “kinetic art object” if asked about it. The camera is pointed at a couch but at a side angle, so we see the rest of the image courtesy of a giant mirror hung behind the couch. At various points, Torn will approach the camera and change the angle surreptitiously thus, we get other perspectives, including a clear view out the window (onto Manhattan buildings that no doubt cost very little to move into at the time) and a more direct shot of a topless girl doing a go-go dance in the apt (Rip’s character is an absolute dog when it comes to women and is also, naturally, playing mind games with all of them).

The actresses in the film are all very good, but Sally Kirkland steals the proceedings away from Torn as a free-spirited woman who gets the explosive final scene in the film to herself. Her character is the only younger woman who directly challenges the shrink (the scenes between Sally and Rip seem to be the one place in the film where improvs were encouraged). In fact, a key scene finds her trying to photograph herself and the shrink as they start to have sex a violation of trust that infuriates Torn’s character (who, of course, is filming her without her consent throughout).

Filmmaker Ginsberg made a few films after Coming Apart, but one can see that his intense approach was suited specifically to the maverick American cinema of the early Seventies and not the post-Jaws/Star Wars era at all.

One of the most impressive film vehicles for Torn was the low-key character study Payday (1973). The lead character is a country singer, but very little of the film is connected to music. What the picture really ends up being about is how some creative people (dare we call them artists?) can really be pretty horrible human beings.

The film is a slice of life observing Torn’s country singer character, who is capable of generosity and kindness, but is more often prone to cruelty or simply exiling a person from his circle. The film is a quintessential early Seventies antihero saga, until the hour and fifteen-minute mark, when everything changes for the worse and we see Rip’s character for who he really is.

Unlike most other early Seventies low-key gems, Payday features an ensemble of performers who never went on to stardom. The two recognizable names in the credits are the executive producer jazz reviewer Ralph J. Gleason and the songwriter who provided four tunes for the film Shel Silverstein.

No less a writer than Nick Tosches he who explored American roots music before that phrase was even coined loved the film for its focus on the screwed-up and violent aspects of a country star’s life (did I neglect to mention that Rip’s character carries around a bag of pills and capsules he gives out freely to whomever he likes, including his dear old mom?). In Creem (July 1973) Uncle Nick rhapsodized about the film for a page and a column.

After reciting the many ways in which real-life country stars had skirted the law while committing various crimes (including murder), Tosches notes that he checked out Payday because a reviewer in Country Music magazine absolutely loathed what it said about the sacred world of country. Tosches felt differently:

Payday is a great fucking movie. It’s the story of the last couple of days in some rising country star’s seedy life. Filmed on location in Alabama, and utilizing a lot of real characters (the clientele of Mr. Ed’s Bar in Selma and a local disc jockey, for example), the flick follows Maury Dann (a composite of Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb, who had a penchant for firing his .32 at random from the window of his car as does Payday’s Maury) as he [Nick recounts a lot of plot, including the finale.]” Nick closed out: “Good shit. A few more movies like Payday and the world of twang just might be coaxed into joining the present century.”


At the height of the maverick era in Hollywood, two British filmmakers were conducting the same bold experiments in storytelling in England (of course, there were also the French, Italian, and Czech New Wave filmmakers, and Brazil's "Cinema Novo" movement). One was Ken Russell; the other was Nicolas Roeg. Roeg (Deceased Artiste tribute for him here) was wise to snag both Buck Henry (Taking Off) and Rip (Coming Apart) to play the lead American males in the superb sci-allegory The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976).

As I noted on the show when doing a tribute to Roeg in recent weeks, Man is an allegory not only about how Americans treat those from other cultures but also about escape via alcohol. Novelist Walter Tevis stated in interviews that all of his works be they contemporary urban sagas, like The Hustler, or humanist sci-fi, like Man were about his own alcoholism. Torn had his private battles with this problem, but here he observes Bowie's character as Bowie slowly becomes addicted.

Rip played Nixon once again in the TV miniseries Blind Ambition (1979), the story of Watergate from John Dean’s perspective (Dean was played by Martin Sheen). Torn’s Nixon is terrific – rather than simply do another David Frye impression, he seems to be playing what’s going on inside Nixon’s head (paranoia, uncertainty, egomania, “situational” ethics). It’s one of the reasons to stick with the series for its full length (besides Theresa Russell as Mo Dean).

One of the oddest items in Rip’s filmography (besides “The Bearding of the President”) is a comedy he directed in the late Eighties that has a screenplay by Funhouse deities Terry Southern and Harry Nilsson (Terry’s last produced script and Harry’s only produced script).
Terry Southern and Rip in NYC, 1973. Photo by Susan Wood.
It’s quite awful – mostly because it’s a one-joke affair. Whoopi was used to doing one-woman shows at that time so she tears up the scenery here, to no real effect (and yes, the punchline is really, really obvious). My favorite detail about the pic: Whoopi sued the producers, saying she had final cut on the film and that it had been ruined by Rip and company. The judge decided against her, decreeing that there was no way to have made the film better (it’s gotta hurt when that goes in the court transcript).

“The Larry Sanders Show” truly was the turning point in Rip’s later career, giving him as it did a whole new lease on life as a busy supporting actor in comedies. But he never stopped playing in dramas while “Sanders” was doing very well on HBO, he starred in the low-budget independent film Where the River Flows North (1994). The film didn’t rate a mention in any of his obits but it was one of many examples of Torn continuing to work in quality material while his star was “on the rise” again and he was scoring supporting roles in mainstream comedies like Men in Black and Dodgeball (which, of course, were mentioned prominently in his obits).

He kept on appearing in dramas (regardless of their budgets) into his ninth decade. His final film, the indie feature Bridge of Names (2012), finds Torn playing the lead’s father. He is around for less than ten minutes (starting at 58:00 here) but the depth of emotion that he put into even relatively minor roles in smaller-than-small movies was indeed genuine.

And since Rip was nothing if not a consummate partier (which was covered in depth in the media), I wanted to include this piece he did with NYC talk-show host Bill Boggs in 1997. Torn was on Broadway in The Young Man From Atlanta and he went to the Joe Allen restaurant with Boggs to talk about his career. It’s not an in-depth piece (that can be found here) but it does find Rip in “Artie” mode. The man was indeed a force of nature.

In closing, a montage of Torn’s work that was put together years ago for a film festival. There are a lot of his latter-day not-so-good comedies (I’m being kind although thankfully the editor did avoid Summer Rental, about which, the less said the better), but as the video continues you do see him as a young buck in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) and some of his early film roles.

Tips of the hat go to Robert Nedelkoff, the members of the Nick Tosches Appreciation Society on FB, and the redoubtable Charles Lieurance.