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‘Let’s Get a Rip Torn Type’ | Village Voice

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‘Let’s Get a Rip Torn Type’

Fifty years ago the Voice profiled the legendary actor, who died July 9, at the age of 88

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‘Let’s Get a Rip Torn Type’
March 27, 1969

If you want to laugh at an actor named Rip Torn, that’s your problem. Born Elmore Torn 37 years ago in Temple, Texas, he was nicknamed Rip around the house as a kid. Grown up, he sees no reason to change it just because it reminds some people of Tab Hunter or Rock Hudson. He knows how good he is.

Rip is also the most paranoid man I’ve ever met, so paranoid that after receiving his second “Obie” in a row for directing Michael McClure’s The Beard — the first was for the role of Marion Faye in Norman Mailer’s Deer Park — he suspected it was all because the CIA was setting him up for some sinister purpose.

“ ‘Have you seen Hud?’ Paul Newman asked me after it was released. ‘I hope you like it,’ Newman said, ‘because Hud is you.’

“I didn’t think that was too funny. I was broke as usual at the time and I thought Paul might at least have laid a percentage on me. Also, if I ever wanted to make a western, everybody would say I was doing a Newman number. But when I saw it, it wasn’t me at all. I told Paul, ‘I’m a very complicated guy — I can only get about 10 per cent of me, how come you think you can get it all?’ ”

We are in a room which, if it were together, would be his study. Books, records, beer cans, overflowing ash trays, sporting equipment, and excess furniture clutter everywhere. It is dark and needs a painting. Looking out through battered and crooked black rimmed glasses, Rip reminds me of a shy, vulnerable little boy with insensitive parents, looking for empathy.

The sign over the bell says “TORN PAGE.” He and Geraldine occupy three floors of a brownstone which they just purchased (with her money the rumor goes) in the West 20s. They have three children: Angelica, five, and four-year-old twins, Jonathan and Anthony. The house is a swept, lived-in mess geared for kids. There are crayon scrawls all over the walls, toys in every corner and underfoot.

As a young boy, Rip loved to go fishing. One day he had no bits and, when his line tangled on a rock, he pretended it was a fish — gritting his teeth, bracing himself, fighting it acting it out. A group of people across the stream started shouting encouragement: “You can get him, boy… hold on now… you can bring him in…”

“Not catching any fish isn’t so bad if you enjoy fishing,” Rip says.

At 16, he and a bunch of Texas buddies went through a season of playing the “coon game” across the tracks, hitting black cats on the head with socks full of bars of soap.

The expression “red-ass” started in Texas A and M, military college. “It gives me the red-ass,” they say in the army. Rip remembers his backside looking “like oozing plasma” from being hazed with shaved down baseball bats. Texas A and M teaches a man how to make pain. Manhood through brutality. Can you take it, boy? “End as a Man.” Rip learned fast. After two years he dropped out.

Believing firmly in Louella Parson’s vision of Hollywood, he hitched there. He had grown up with weapons and thought nothing of the unlicensed pistol in his pocket. Arriving in L..A., and mistaking it for civilization, he went to the police station to turn it in, asking them to certify that it was his so he could ship it back to Texas for safekeeping.

Instead he was booked and charged with eight unsolved robberies committed with the same type weapon. He in no way resembled the suspects, but it took two days in jail to clear the matter up, and then they confiscated his pistol. That was Rip Torn’s welcome to Hollywood. It’s enough to make a guy paranoid.

The first Hollywood party goes like this. Scott Brady was starring in Light Up the Sky at the Laguna Beach Playhouse. A little man was trying to change a tire on a big car in front. Rip helped him. The guy was the set designer at the theatre and invited him backstage. There he met Scott Brady and went to his party. He got completely bombed like everybody else and passed out with an unconscious girl on top of him. It might have become a real orgy if everybody hadn’t started retching, groaning, and puking all over the place. The hors d’oeuvres, it turned out, were tainted.

He sold magazines on the road. “I was good at it. I’d knock on the door and say, ‘Hi.’ Then I’d just stand there — no pitch or anything — and there would be this silence. The woman might say something like, ‘Oh, I know, you’re Louie’s boy aren’t you?’ I’d say, ‘No ma’am, I’m one of the boys from the district high school.’ I’d tell her that I had only 20 minutes to win this watch. I talked faster and faster and of course she bought something. Then I’d ask if she had a friend who could help and… It was terrible.

“I got fed up. I was selling this family in Salt Lake City. They were interested in me on a truly human level — nice people. I finally said, ‘Look, you don’t want these magazines. What do you need $35 worth of magazines for?’ I walked out of their house and tried to get involved again. The next customer was a little old lady who reminded me of my grandmother. I always like to talk to old people anyway — see what’s on their minds. She made me a lemonade and I sat on her rocking chair and we talked. I decided to quit right then.

“I hitched some more; down to Mexico, I was a chauffeur in L.A. for a while, a counterman. I was a plumber and really had my hands in shit… By the time I got back home, I was in such bad shape my own mother didn’t recognize me. I hadn’t eaten in three days. ‘Lady, do you have any yard work?’ I said as a joke. She didn’t even know who I was.”

***

“Hey Ripper! Good to see ya, boy. How the hell are ya?” Coming out of McGinnis’s Broadway restaurant, Rip is greeted by Pat Hingle’s Texas twang. They embrace.

Hingle was Gooper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and is a frequent guest star on television about whom people say, “He’s a good actor… what’s his name again?” Rip and Pat Hingle have a lot in common.

They are both from Texas, and studied at the University of Texas drama school, where people in the department thought Rip had no technique. “I wasn’t phony enough. But sometimes I’d have a moment on stage that was so real it made them forget the fact that I was terrible.”

A few years later, Hingle was rehearsing in Cat and called Rip, still in Texas, to tell him they were casting the understudy to Ben Gazzara. He came right up. New on Broadway, he got a lot of funny takes: “Your name is what? Rip Torn??!! Do you know Buck Naked… Brick Wall… Chan Delier…?”

“No I don’t,” he said pleasantly. “But maybe you’ve heard of my cousin.”

“Who is that?”

“Fuck You.”

After a lot of static and perseverance, he finally read. Years later, Molly Kazan told him that his reading that day was one of the most electric moments she had ever seen on stage. That was before Rip broke his personal management contract with her husband, Elia Kazan, by saying; “I can no longer live suspended by the web of your whim.” He hasn’t had a manager since.

Hingle is on his way to read a voice-over for a television commercial. “Damn, I wish I could get me some of those,” Rip says. “You’re good at it — you do what they tell you. My trouble is I always want to read my own wav.”

“Sorry about your play,” Hingle says.

The Cuban Thing had closed the night before. Rip had the lead, although his name was listed alphabetically on the marquee. (He doesn’t believe in solo bows; “they destroy the unity of the company.”)

Two years ago, he promised Jack Gelber, who wrote and directed the play, that he would do it. He kept the promise, even though it meant turning down two film offers — which is one reason he isn’t a celebrity.

The reviews were universally rotten; “I had a premonition, but everybody is always saying I’m paranoid, so this time I asked a friend — a psychiatrist — to come opening night and protect my sanity. Afterward he told me how much he liked the play and the performances. Then I said, ‘Okay… what do you think of… these?’ I shoved the reviews at him.

“He was stunned: ‘This isn’t what I saw,’ he said. ‘These reviews have nothing to do with the play. I don’t understand.’ I said, ‘Now you know what I’ve been talking about.’ ”

“My friend was really at a loss. He said, ‘If your talent was more conventional, or if you were more conventional as a person, maybe they could take it. But the combination of the two is too much for most people.’ ”

***

The health officer at the Mexican border suddenly pulled his gun and badge on Rip. “Secret Service,” he said.

Rip flipped, he shouted, “Okay… go ahead, bust it down. Let’s go the whole route here — hub caps, engine, whatever you want. Let’s get it over with… I don’t give a shit. You ‘re not going to find anything.”

“Then why are you screaming. I’m trying to be nice and you yell at me.”

“Nice? If you’re trying to be nice, why did you pull your gun? And what the hell is this all about anyway. Every time I come across the same thing happens.” It was the third time.

“I really don’t know,” the agent said. “Maybe it’s those roles you play… all those perverts, subversives, and criminal types. You’re very convincing, you know. Anyway, somebody put you on our list.”

Paranoid? Maybe. It is a little hard to believe that all the persecution Rip feels has occurred. But there are certain men who attract bullies, whose stance puts people up-tight. He’s like a gunfighter; people feel obligated, somehow, to challenge him to a draw. Then there are the roles.

He was Tom Junior, a sadistic Southern bigot, in Sweet Bird of Youth, eventually replacing Paul Newman in the lead as Chance Wayne, an aging, desperate gigolo on the make. His Marion Faye was a true freaky, pot-smoking pimp with faggot tendencies and rumors that he was really all those things flew around the Village during the run. In series guest spots, he is typed as a hood, outlaw, and general bad guy. His Roberto, in The Cuban Thing, was considered pro-Castro.

***

Pat Hingle inspects Rip’s right ear on Broadway. “It doesn’t look too bad,” he says.

“No, there’s not even a scar… Look.”

Rip’s role-playing got him into the hospital last summer. The New York Times reported it as follows: “Norman Mailer and Rip Torn, the actor and longtime friend of the author’s engaged in a perhaps overly realistic struggle before the cameras… Mr. Torn was acting out one of the several cinematic assassination attempts against Mr. Mailer, who played Norman T. Kingsley, a famous movie director contemplating a race for President.

“According to eyewitnesses, he crept up behind. Mr. Mailer and shouted, ‘Norman T. Kingsley, I have something for you.’ Then he hit him three times on the head with a child’s toy hammer. Mr. Mailer turned and grappled with his assailant as the cameras continued to grind. In the struggle, Mr. Mailer bit Mr. Torn on the ear.”

“I told Norman we shouldn’t’ contribute to the bullshit number that’s going down in the press,” Rip said. “It’s just a dumb misunderstanding. It wasn’t the bite itself that bugged me, it was the fact that anytime the human tooth gets into you, you are going to have an infection. It’s the most virulent bite of all… I told Norman that.

“ ‘Are you trying to say my bite is the most poisonous bite?’ Norman said. You know how he is; he’s always got to be number one.

“ ‘I just said the human bite is the most poisonous — but I won’t take away from you the honor of being the most virulent of all.’ Anyway, he’s still mad at me. I think he wanted it to be unexpected, but not all that unexpected, you dig?

Nobody’s role was clear. I just assumed I was to be the one to finally make an attempt on his life. I was functioning completely as an actor and I assumed he would just topple and act it out. He didn’t do that at all — he went right into reality… How about a blast?”

“No thanks, Ripper, I’m late.” Hingle flags a cab. “Give my love to Gerry.”

***

“I said to Gerry the other night…” Rip is just back from California where Gerry is making a film, passing through on his way to direct The Beard in London “…I said ‘I’ve done everything possible to root out my love for you, and it’s beaten me, I can’t kill it.’ ”

Rip loves to lay some out-of-sight statement on you and then stare (I always lose) until you feel paranoid yourself questioning it. “Why do you want to root it out? Is love a weakness or something?”

“Yeah… I think it is. Look baby…” I can understand why a director I called yesterday refused to say anything about him except “he’s a hostile, paranoid bastard,” and hung up. Rip looks like he wants to hit me. “…Love in this society has only been some kind of creep sentimental punkdom. You know that. We’ve all been brainwashed.”

“Don’t get involved with that dreadful man!” Gerry’s friends said when she started seeing Rip. They were in Sweet Bird at the time and, in another of those role extensions, people took him for Chance Wayne using an aging actress — Gerry is now 44 — as a ticket to stardom. They have been together nine years.

She is intensely loyal, much more disturbed about the ear incident than Rip. The first chance she had, she said to Mailer, “Hello Norman, how’s your appetite?” He didn’t answer. She continued, “Well like the movie says, you are what you eat.”

***

Another rumor — Rip “ran off” with Mike McClure after The Cuban Thing closed. Rip may or may not be a hostile, belligerent, paranoid bastard, and he may or may not be one of the best actors in America, but one thing he isn’t is a faggot. I tell him about it.

“You know what that is?” I pour some wine. “Wishful thinking.” He stares me down again. “Here’s where it’s at — Eitel, the director in Deer Park, has a tough line after Marion makes a pass at him. He considers it for a while and he’s tempted but he finally says no, because that’s what the machinery wants us to be — faggots. If you’re a faggot then they’ve got you nailed. They can put you away, dismiss you. You’re a faggot. I’d like to meet the guy who told you that. Mike’s my brother, and I guess the idea of two strong cats making it together turned him on. Here’s another story that came back to me. Some big English director — I won’t mention his name — was asked, ‘Do you know Rip Torn?’ He said, ‘My dear, I’ve had him.’ And I’ve never even met the cat.”

Rip looks disgusted. His bag holding important personal papers fell off the rack of his big bike on the way over. He discovered it in front of my place. Instead of retracing his route right away, he’s lounging comfortably in my easy chair drinking wine and rapping. Julie, a small girl who has been sitting silent, listening somewhat in awe, offers to go out and look for it. He says fine, draws her a map of the route, and, although she has no driver’s license and has only driven a bike once — a small Honda at that — offers her his key. Fortunately, she has enough sense to refuse it.

The loss of the bag has put him extremely up-tight. He drinks and talks fast.

On politics: “Nixon is a motherfucker triumphant. Yeah. But you know, when he makes that victory salute — he’s got his arms up and his shoulders are around his ears — there must be some part of him that’s embarrassed about the spectacle he’s making. It’s not really a full take like ‘come on, give it to me and I’ll die for you.’ It looks more like they coached him but he really can’t make it. He’s a bad actor.”

“Then there’s Humpty Dumpty. I said to Mailer that George Wallace would chew Humpty Dumpty and Icky Dicky right up if they ever got together. He said, ‘No, they would work out a deal with him and then slowly poison him…” Rip starts to choke from laughing.

On acting: “A guy talked to me about doing a TV series when I was in L.A. last month. I told him I had already served my years soldiering for my country. Why should I sign up for five more years of bondage? Of course for that bondage you’re made a millionaire so it’s not bad bondage. There’s nothing wrong with it except that I don’t dig it. For a lot of people, though, it’s the prize.

“Some people say about me, ‘Why isn’t Rip bothered by not being a star?’ I know I can be a star, I just don’t choose to be. But I could dig it in a way; there’s a motherfucker triumphant residing in all of us. I could go for the total number.

“Once I was driving down Sunset Strip to Malibu. There are packs of cars, you know, with the lights. I decided to lead the pack. There were all these hand-tooled jobs and me — I was driving this Mickey Mouse car… That’s why Paul Newman said I’d never be a star in Hollywood. I came rolling up to his house driving a Rambler. He was appalled. He said, ‘Man, a Rambler!? Don’t you know you can’t drive that kind of car and be a star?’ I hate to say anything bad about Paul… He was so beautiful with McCarthy…”

“Writers are usually interested in me. They hope, because they dig me as an actor, that they will be the one to make me a star — give me the vehicle to ride — Like James Earl Jones and The Great White Hope. Jimmy and I are close. We’re about the same age and… he’s beautiful. I can talk about this now, because he’s mentioned it already. Years ago, I tried to have about eight or ten actors admitted into the Actors Studio. At the time there was only Sidney Poitier and Diana Sands and I said that the Studio was just a microcosm, a reflection, of the whole corrupt Broadway scene.

“They only let in one or two — its the same old shit. I wanted to break the whole color thing in the theatre. Jimmy was finally brought in as an observer. I remember talking, arguing with the powers at the Studio about him. I said, ‘This guy is a boss actor.’ They said, ‘He’ll never be a star.’ ”

Rip is by now flat-out — his intelligence, intensity, pride, paranoia, his deep bitterness. “The formation of the Actors Studio Theatre was made possible by the inclusion of Gerry and myself on the Board of Directors. Kazan went to Lincoln Center, and I knew that wasn’t the place to go. Tennessee Williams said, ‘Baby, what do you want to go to that model prison for?’ And Jimmy Baldwin said, ‘I’m not going to go there and be the nigger in the window.’ They didn’t have to tell me that, I was already on my own course of action…

“Baldwin’s Blues for Mr. Charlie came out of the Actors Studio Theatre. I played Lyle, a Southern white cracker, and I didn’t pull back on it, didn’t come on and wink at the audience and say, ‘This isn’t really me, you know.’ There were nights when I thought some cats were going to come up on stage and lay me out.

“People freak out at the truth. That’s why they kill. They’d rather kill than admit they’ve been caught up in a stale game and instead of being toughs, they are punks. They want to kill the person who brought that pain to their consciousness.

“LeRoi Jones was talking to me about my Lyle. He started laughing. He realized he was talking about me to me, but I wasn’t there you see. And all of a sudden he saw that I was there and it kind of embarrassed him. ‘You punky cracker,’ he said to me. LeRoi is hip enough to know that I wouldn’t have been able to do that if that was where I’m really at. I’m not saying it didn’t cause me tremendous pain — it did…”

About Norman Mailer: (They have made up.) “He’s beautiful; he’s such a beautiful cat… I really love him. One time we got blasted at Casey’s bar after a performance of Deer Park, and he asked me — he caught me completely off guard. ‘You have an older brother?’ I said, ‘You, you are!’ ”

About himself: “In the American sexual/political ethic, they nail cats that speak the truth as fags, or some other sexual aberration. Then they can dismiss the truth on that level. I’m willing to lay the book of my life out to any of those bullshit artists… Let’s face it; the words I say can sign my death warrant. But I’ve done it so many times, why shouldn’t I do it now? The Confederacy has won. The United States is the South. The South has risen again and they control the military, the Congress… they control the country. And their aim is to control the world. Their axis is our South, South Africa, Rhodesia, Spain, Germany — and an awful lot of people in between… are you going to print all of this? I mean these are tough things to say…

“At least people will know I’m still alive. Terry Southern told me a funny story. He worked on the screenplay for a movie called The Cincinnati Kid. The producers were sitting around trying to cast one of the roles, a bad-ass type. Somebody said, ‘What we need is a Rip Torn type.’ Terry said, ‘Well, don’t think I’m trying to be weird or anything, but why don’t we get Rip Torn?’ They looked at him like he was some kind of nut. I guess they figured I was in jail or dead or something.”

***

Julie comes back without the bag. “This sort of thing happens to me every time I’m about to leave the country,” Rip says, draining the last of the half gallon of wine which was full when we started.

I realize I’ve crossed from role to reality myself; by now I consider Rip a friend rather than a subject. He is as large as life and my life is larger since meeting him.

Maybe it’s the wine, but I feel close enough to tell him this: “Look, man, if you’re a loser it’s your own fault. Your bag with all your identification and papers falls off your bike and instead of going back to look for it, you sit here drinking wine complaining for an hour. Then you send Julie out for it; you should have gone yourself. You even offer to let her use your bike. That chick can’t drive a bike. She doesn’t even have a driver’s license. She’d have cracked it up and then you would have been more paranoid than ever.”

Rip stretched out on the couch, listening to my little lecture. He starts to raise the left corner of his mouth in a sardonic smile and then laughs out loud. “I don’t give a fuck,” he says.

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