Rip Torn Dies: ‘Larry Sanders Show’ Emmy Winner & Broadway Veteran Was 88

By Erik Pedersen, Greg Evans

Rip Torn dead
Picture Perfect/Shutterstock

Rip Torn, who played Garry Shandling’s profane, fiercely loyal producer on HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show, co-starred in the original Men in Black films and was a major star of Broadway and Off Broadway during a seven-decade career, died today surrounded by family at his home in Lakeville, CT. He was 88.

Rip Torn dead
The Larry Sanders Show Brillstein-Grey

The prolific Torn played the unstoppable and unflappable Artie on Larry Sanders, which aired from 1992-98 and followed the behind-the-scenes and onstage antics of a successful late-night network talk show. Along with scoring a Supporting Actor in a Comedy Emmy in 1996, he was nominated for each of the show’s six seasons.

The year Torn won his Emmy, he also had been up for Guest Actor in a Drama Series for his turn on CBS’ Chicago Hope. In 2008, he earned his ninth and final Emmy nom, for his recurring role as Don Geiss on NBC’s 30 Rock. His first was for The Atlanta Child Murders in 1985.

“Play drama as comedy and comedy as drama,” Torn, born Elmore Rual Torn Jr. on February 6, 1931 in Temple, Texas, once said. He claimed the approach was his secret weapon.

Torn earned a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Cross Creek (1983) and a Tony Award nomination (1960) for Best Featured Actor in a Play for Elia Kazan’s staging of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth. He would reprise the Sweet Bird role of Tom Finlay Jr. in the 1962 feature adaptation directed by Richard Brooks that reunited Torn with his Broadway co-stars Paul Newman and Geraldine Page. Torn would wed Page in 1963; they remained married until the actress’ death in 1987. Torn’s first marriage, to actress Ann Wedgeworth (Evening Shade, Sweet Dreams), lasted from 1956 to 1961.

The Sweet Bird staging — which earned Torn his sole Tony nomination (he didn’t win) — would be followed by nine other Broadway performances including Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and major revivals of The Glass Menagerie, Strange Interlude and Anna Christie. His most recent appearance on Broadway was in the 1997 production of Horton Foote’s Young Man From Atlanta. His Off Broadway credits include 1963’s Desire Under the Elms, among many others.

‘Men In Black’: Will Smith, Rip Torn, Tommy Lee Jones Shutterstock

Amassing nearly 200 film and TV credits, Torn likely is best known to younger moviegoers as Agent Zed in the smash 1997 Will Smith-Tommy Lee Jones sci-fi comedy Men in Black and its 2002 sequel. He memorably played tough-love Coach Patches O’Houlihan in the 2004 comedy Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, which starred Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller.

Torn’s career began in the mid-1950s with guest roles in such TV series as Kraft Theatre, Pursuit, The Restless Gun, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Playhouse 90. He continued to work on the big and small screens throughout his career, appearing in dozens of popular TV shows including The Untouchables, Route 66, Dr. Kildare, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Rawhide and Combat! during the ’60s. He appeared in Norman Jewison’s The Cincinnati Kid (1965), which starred Steve McQueen, Ann-Margret, Karl Malden and Tuesday Weld.

Torn mostly worked in film during the 1970s, including a role opposite David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). He also played Richard Nixon in the 1979 miniseries Blind Ambition, starring Martin Sheen as POTUS 37’s special counsel John Dean — whose congressional testimony in the Watergate hearings ultimately would help topple Nixon.

Torn would continue to work throughout the 1980s, but it was his role opposite Albert Brooks in 1991’s Defending Your Life that grabbed Shandling’s attention. That led to Torn’s career role as the irascible but fatherly producer on The Larry Sanders Show.

Based loosely on Shandling’s experiences as guest host of The Tonight Show, the series depicted late-night talk as a cesspool of ego, betrayal and unchecked ambition. Starring Shandling as Larry Sanders, the comedy helped launch or solidify the careers of such actors as Jeffrey Tambor, Janeane Garofalo, Wallace Langham, Bob Odenkirk and Jeremy Piven.

Torn is survived by his wife, actress Amy Wright; daughters Katie Torn, Danae Torn, Claire Torn and Angelica Page; twin sons Tony and Jon Torn; sister Patricia Alexander; and four grandchildren. No memorial service plans were announced.

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