As It Happens

Producer sets record straight on Rip Torn's wild reputation — and that time the actor broke into a bank

A former executive producer of The Larry Sanders Show pays tribute to the late actor Rip Torn — who was a force of nature, onscreen and behind the scenes.

Larry Sanders Show producer Peter Tolan says actor Rip Torn brought 'a really wonderful life spirit' to set

Actor Rip Torn died on Tuesday. He was 88. (Carlo Allegri/Getty Images)
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Transcript

On and off the screen, Rip Torn had a legendary reputation.

The Emmy-winning actor, who was best known for his role as the cantankerous producer Artie on The Larry Sanders Show, died on Tuesday. He was 88.

After growing up in Texas, Torn hitchhiked to Hollywood in the hopes of becoming a star. It took awhile, but eventually he built a reputation as a fierce talent — with a fierce persona to match.

A string of scandals and rumours — such as being arrested for breaking into a bank and infamous public frays with writer Norman Mailer and actor Dennis Hopper — sometimes overshadowed his successes, which included an Oscar nomination for his performance in the 1983 film Cross Creek.

Peter Tolan, a former writer and executive producer of The Larry Sanders Show, spoke to As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan about Torn and whether his wild reputation was warranted.

Here is part of their conversation.

I'm very sorry for the loss of your colleague. What goes through your mind when you hear him playing that character of Artie?

Just a really wonderful life spirit from Rip. You never really knew what he was going to do with the lines. He certainly knew how to hit a joke. But he would put a spin on things.

Peter Tolan says Torn brought 'a really wonderful life spirit' to his role as Artie on The Larry Sanders Show. (Stephen Chernin/The Associated Press)

What do you remember about when you first met him? 

I think there was some apprehension.

I met him early on, when we were actually casting the role of Artie — Gary [Shandling] and I. We had both seen him in the Albert Brooks film Defending Your Life and felt that he had the right gravitas to make that work.

You know, I think we were ... how about frightened? I mean, if Rip had anything other than talent, it was a reputation.

I certainly think it's been interesting to see obituaries of Rip that do not shy away from his volatility, his cantankerousness, because he was definitely that person.

Well, indeed, a lot of the obituaries today are pointing out his wild man image. What contributed to that?

I'm not sure. I think what was interesting about him, and what saved him for me, or certainly drew me to him [was] that in spite of his volatility, in spite of his sometimes strange behaviour, paranoia, whatever, in spite of all that, sometimes we would get into these conversations on set about gardening.

He loved to be outdoors. He loved to garden and I just got a glimpse inside this man through those conversations.

Tolan, left, and Gary Shandling, right, pose with their Emmy awards for outstanding writing for a comedy series award for The Larry Sanders Show. (Victoria Arocho/Associated Press)

How did you square the gardener with someone who was known for getting into a fight with Dennis Hopper? There was another Norman Mailer incident that involves a hammer and a bit ear. I mean, how did you reconcile those two parts of him? 

I know we made a point of not keeping any hammers on the set. You don't want to tempt fate, right? I would say 85 to 90 per cent of the time, he was the guy who would go for the hammer.

It was this part about the gardener that just threw me off enough to go, you know, there's something more to this guy.

We once had the late Burt Reynolds on the show as a guest and for whatever reason, during the course of shooting, Burt Reynolds had a spectacular flameout. [He] just got incredibly angry and made a ridiculously over-the-top, crazy, angry scene, on set, in front of everybody.

I happened to be standing next to Rip at the time and I looked over at him, and he just said to me, "Burt's a troubled boy." And I thought, you bastard. He's a troubled boy?

  • Warning: The following video contains violence and explicit language.

Did that trouble, in a way, did it affect his career? 

I think he had issues throughout his entire career because of his reputation. And, you know, some of it was earned and some of it wasn't. But it had a cumulative effect that sometimes worked against him.

He once said that he never missed a day of work.

Absolutely true. He took it very seriously and certainly was a dedicated actor, dedicated to the craft of it and the job of it.

He did struggle in the last decade. He was arrested after breaking into a Connecticut bank at night with a loaded gun in his possession. Had you kept in touch with him over the years?

We had spoken several times over the years, past Larry Sanders. He was interested in doing another project. I think he liked my writing. I actually had written an episode that he won an Emmy for. And so I think we bonded over that.

And about that story in Connecticut, about the bank, when I said that Rip was an outdoorsman, it wasn't just the garden. He was also a hunter. So the idea of him having a gun made perfect sense to me.

I really loved that story. Not that I loved a story about Rip getting in trouble — but I loved the story because his defence was he thought he was home. Because in some Connecticut towns, because of local zoning laws, banks and other sort of businesses have to look like homes.

So it sort of made sense that he went in, took his boots off — now that's the important part in his defence — that he actually went in and took his boots off, thinking that he was home.

An odd story. But that's definitely Rip.

Written by Morgan Passi and John McGill. Produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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