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Rip Torn, the eccentric and acclaimed actor best known to cinemagoers for his role as Zed in the science fiction comedy franchise Men in Black, has passed away at his home in Lakeville, Connecticut. Despite gaining notoriety for various legal issues later in life, Torn’s screen presence has been celebrated for decades, following his scene stealing performances in such cult classics as The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Beastmaster.
Born Elmore Torn Jr. in Texas in 1931, Torn honed his craft under the guidance of legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg before gaining his first screen credit at the age of twenty-six in Karl Malden’s 1957 drama Time Limit. Following a decade of supporting roles working alongside the likes of Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and Telly Savalas, Torn was to be cast in a low budget picture entitled Easy Rider before fate ultimately intervened.
The film’s star and director Dennis Hopper, however, would immediately clash with the brash young performer. ‘I wanted to use a real Texan,’ explained Hopper in the book Jack Nicholson: The Early Years. ‘Rip and I had a fight and he wanted some rewrites and I said, ‘Screw you’ and that’s basically what came down there. And Bert Schneider, who was giving us the money, said, ‘I haven’t asked for anything,’ which he hadn’t and he said, ‘I want Nicholson to play the part’ and I fought it and said that I didn’t want him because I wanted a Texan.’
With Torn eventually replaced by rising star Jack Nicholson, Torn would spend the 1970s in a variety of supporting roles that included Michael Crichton’s medical thriller Coma and A Stranger Is Watching, Sean S. Cunningham’s follow-up to his breakthrough horror Friday the 13th, before finally being cast as the villain in the dark fantasy The Beastmaster. Yet his reputation as being a cantankerous and unpredictable would come to plague the actor throughout his career.
‘Rip Torn, who has been caught in a frustrating catch-22 for most of his career and blackballed by rumours in Hollywood, where rumours spread like AIDS that he was ‘difficult’ and ‘undependable,” claimed a 1985 article for Spin. ‘More serious was the rap against him as a political activist and the long siege of harassment by the FBI and CIA. He was blacklisted and couldn’t get a major job for sixteen years until he was finally ‘exonerated’ when the FBI stamped ‘case closed’ at the of his file without any further comment.’
Torn’s career would receive something of a resurgence in the 1990s when he was in the long-running sitcome The Larry Sanders Show, in which he would portray the producer of the eponymous talk show lead. By the time the show came to an end in 1998 Torn had returned to the big screen in the blockbuster Men in Black, in which he played the lead of the mysterious organisation that serves to police alien activity on Earth, a role he would return to one more time before his character was killed off before the release of the second sequel.
Over the last twenty years Torn has continued to take supporting roles in a variety of motion pictures, from gross-out comedies like Freddy Got Fingered and DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story to Sofia Coppola’s historical biopic Marie Antoinette. Since making his screen debut over sixty years ago, Torn has appeared in approximately a hundred movies and countless television shows, received a Tony Award nomination for his work on Broadway and an Academy Award nomination for his performance in the 1983 drama Cross Creek.
‘Mr. Torn married the actress Ann Wedgeworth in 1955. He married Ms. Page in 1963, two years after he and Ms. Wedgeworth divorced. They remained married until her death in 1987, but by then Mr. Torn had already begun a long-term relationship with the actress Amy Wright, who worked with Mr. Torn and Ms. Page’s Sanctuary Theater Workshop in New York,’ explained obituary in the New York Times following the announcement of the iconic actor’s passing at the age of eighty-eight. ‘In addition to Ms. Wright, Mr. Torn is survived by four daughters: Danae, from his first marriage, the actress Angelica Page, from his second, and Katie and Claire, from his relationship with Ms. Wright; two sons, Anthony and Jonathan, both from his second marriage; his sister, Patricia Alexander; and four grandchildren.’