Remembering 'Larry Sanders Show' Actor Rip Torn

Jul 12, 2019
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Actor Rip Torn, who had a long career in film, television and theater, died Tuesday at his home in Connecticut. He was 88. He earned critical acclaim and one Tony nomination for his performances on Broadway, often in Tennessee Williams plays. His film and television roles ranged from Judas Iscariot to Richard Nixon. He had a colorful personal life, with several DUI charges and a bizarre arrest for breaking into a bank that he said, in his intoxicated state, he mistook for his house. He got probation.

Torn is best remembered as the gruff and loyal producer Artie on "The Larry Sanders Show," a role that earned him an Emmy Award and four other nominations. Here's a scene from the show in which Jon Stewart has been tapped to fill in as host on Larry's late-night talk show and the producers have booked a less than stellar set of guests. Artie's trying to sell Stewart on the lineup.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW")

RIP TORN: (As Artie) Friday night brings us the exciting and still hot Zsa Zsa Gabor. Are you guys mad at me? You've been approached here, Jon. What's wrong?

JON STEWART: (As himself) Well, it's like - I read the "Welcome To The Dollhouse" sketch, and there just didn't seem to be anything - what's the word? - funny.

TORN: (As Artie) I agree, but I've confiscated Phil's bong, and I can assure you the writing will improve. What next?

STEWART: (As himself) Well, Artie, I don't want to push this, but it seems like we got two things going on here. We got the "Larry Sanders Show," which is huge guests and funny comedy, and it's very popular. Then we have this other thing which reminds me a lot of my old show, which was not as popular and, in fact, they stopped making. I mean, the network guys kept talking about all these huge guests that were coming.

TORN: (As Artie) And so they should because they love you at the network. Here's a hot one - the incomparable Charles Nelson Reilly.

STEWART: (As Jon himself) Again?

DAVIES: Rip Torn spoke to Terry in 1994, and he said he based his character on Johnny Carson's longtime producer Fred De Cordova.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TORN: I based it on the kind of brilliant quickness that Fred De Cordova has, the kind of hands-on operation that he had that he's there that - he was totally loyal to Mr. Carson. And since a great producer has to be almost like a military commander, he has to be - have a touch of savagery but hopefully with good heart behind it.

TERRY GROSS: How has "The Garry Sanders Show" (ph) changed your career, if at all? I mean, being a regular on a TV series, especially something that's developed such a loyal following, is - it's a different kind of situation than having movies. It's a recurring character. More people see TV, probably.

TORN: It's a steady work.

GROSS: It's steady work - that, too. Right, right, right. So you're liking it?

TORN: I love it.

GROSS: Good.

TORN: Want me to say more? I mean...

GROSS: Yeah.

TORN: ...We really have a very good - I was talking to John Siffrin (ph), who's a producer of the Shandling show. And my mother, Thelma Torn, from Texas and my sister Pat Alexander - my mother died between Christmas and New Year's, my sister said, ever considerate. And she was a very beautiful, funny, witty person. And I took her on the show. And Garry Shandling talked to my sister and my mother and - kind of mouth a bit agape. And then later, he came over and he said, gee. He said, your mother, Thelma, is so beautiful and gracious. And your sister Pat - such a gorgeous woman. And they're so sophisticated. They're so witty. I said, yes. What did you expect? He looked at me, and everybody laughed. He said, I guess I expected a redneck mother and a redneck sister. And I says, no, Garry. I'm the only redneck in our family. I'm just trying to explain that when I talk to John about thanking him for that for the way that my mother was treated that he said, you know, we are a family. And I know that sounds corny, but we have a great time on the Shandling show.

GROSS: When there is a guest star on the show playing themselves doing a guest shot on "The Larry Sanders Show"...

TORN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Are they always willing to have fun with themselves? In other words, are they always willing to be the butt of a joke or to make fun of their popular image? Or do you sometimes have to encourage people to just, like, relax?

TORN: Well, I - yeah, sure. I mean, they come to me. A lot of times, they say, I'm completely terrified. What's - is it always like this? What's going on? What's going to happen? I said, I don't know. You know, that's part of the fun of it (laughter). That's what I liked about live television, you know? So - but we have a script, and they usually have a wonderful time. And everybody wants to do the show - I mean, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Burt Reynolds, Roseanne and Tom Arnold.

GROSS: Let me ask you the question that I'm sure you've been asked more than any other question in your life, and that is the story of how you went from Elmore Torn to Rip Torn.

TORN: Well, it's just very simple. It's like baseball players that were named Woods or called Piney or - it's just a nickname.

GROSS: When did you get it?

TORN: Oh, I think when I was born, my dad said that the doctor says, you know, since my father's name was Rip, I guess - maybe the guy raised dogs or something - he says, you know, little Rip out of big Rip.

GROSS: So your father was nicknamed Rip, or that...

TORN: He was nicknamed.

GROSS: ...Was his birth name?

TORN: He was - his first name, like me, was Elmore. And he - we had different middle names. And I've got an Uncle Roland down in Houston, Texas. He's the senior Rip in the family now. And I have a cousin Sam, and he's called Rip, too. It's just because it's the last name is Torn that all Torns were called Rip - the male members, anyway.

GROSS: Now, I read that when you first started off in television that some of the programs insisted that you changed your name from Rip Torn back to Elmore or to anything...

TORN: Well, they didn't want Elmore.

GROSS: ...Anything other than Rip.

TORN: They said Elmore sounds like a hick, and...

GROSS: Mmm hmm.

TORN: ...And Rip sounds like a comedian.

GROSS: So when you were getting started in television, some programs didn't want you to use the name Rip Torn because they thought it sounded like you were a comic and not a serious actor.

TORN: Yeah, sure.

GROSS: What'd you think of that?

TORN: I never really worried about that. You know, I think it was a - when I was signed with the MCA - before they became Universal, they had a talent agency - and the woman agent I had, Monique James, says, hold onto your hat, dear. Said, your new name will be Richard Torn. And I says, Monique, they'll call me Dicky Torn.

GROSS: (Laughter).

TORN: So the first time I played on Broadway, the great director Elia Kazan said to me - says, look. You know, Elmore is corny. You know, Rip sounds like a comedian. He says, we got to change the name. I says, look. There will be no changes. That's me. He said, you could have a great career, but you'll never have it with this funny name. I said, OK, we'll use Elmore, but be sure you spell it right and say it right.

I knew a wonderful journalist, Oriana Fallaci. And she said, well, if you had an Italian pronunciation, you'd be Elmore, so that'll be OK.

GROSS: Now, you grew up in Texas. You originally went to college as an agriculture major.

TORN: Yeah.

GROSS: What did your family say when you switched from what was basically the family tradition - agriculture, ranching - from that to acting?

TORN: Well, they didn't like it. And my dad, who was a very remarkable man - Elmore Torn - he sat me down on the back porch. I just - I'd gotten out of the Army, and I was more mature than a lot of people are when they start into the profession of acting. And he said there's been a lot of discussion and raised voices. We have not been able to shake you from wanting to do this. He said, and we've seen you on the stage, and you have a rapport with audience. He said, but if you don't go up to New York City right now and make this attempt to be an actor, he said, whether or not you succeed or you don't, he said, it's something that will trouble you the rest of your life. He said it's better for you to go up there and make a good attempt. Then you'll be satisfied. And he said, and if you do it, do it 100%. And I'm backing you, you know, not with money, but with the father's approval.

GROSS: Good advice?

TORN: Well, it was biblical. And I tell this story - but my mom came in (unintelligible) my lap. She said - started crying. She said, oh, son. Just promise me one thing. If you go to New York to be an actor, don't wind up in the gutter. And I said, Mom, that's where you start in showbiz.

GROSS: (Laughter). Were they proud of you?

TORN: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: When your father encouraged you to go, were you surprised that he was giving you that advice?

TORN: I was stunned. I didn't - it didn't produce in me an emotional reaction like it does if - when I tell that story. What it produced in me was a great feeling of exhilaration and strength. And I felt that I would be successful.

GROSS: Because you had his backing?

TORN: Yeah.

DAVIES: Rip Torn spoke with Terry in 1994. He died Tuesday at the age of 88. Coming up, John Powers reviews the British TV series "London Kills." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT'S "BRIGHT MISSISSIPPI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.