Elizabeth Ashley: Hard-living Rip Torn was like ‘broken crystal’


The first person I called after hearing Rip Torn died on Tuesday was Elizabeth Ashley, who knew him well.

“I’m seeing so many R.I.P.’s for Rip,” the actress told me. “Are you f- – – ing kidding me? Rest in peace? If there is a God, Rip is in hand-to-hand combat with him because Rip will argue his way in and fight his way out.”

Torn, most famous as the devious Artie of “The Larry Sanders Show,” was always fighting his way out of something: a troubled childhood, political controversies, marriages and alcoholism.

But along the way, he turned in some terrific performances. Born in Texas, Torn made his Broadway debut as Brick at the tail end of the original run of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Tennessee Williams thought so much of his performance that he cast him in his next play, “Sweet Bird of Youth.” Torn was nominated for a Tony Award.

His career was up and running, but so was his reputation for hard living.

“Great actors keep the cauldron burning inside themselves,” Ashley says. “But Rip wore it right out front. His cauldron was always boiling over.”

Torn famously fought with Norman Mailer on the set of an independent movie called “Maidstone,” written, produced and directed by Mailer. Nobody knows why, but at some point, Rip hit Mailer with a hammer and Mailer retaliated by biting Rip’s ear. It’s in the movie, and if you haven’t seen it, you should.

But that was Rip — unpredictable, brilliant and angry.

Nobody knows where the anger came from, but Ashley, who also grew up in the South, says, “I grew up with mega-macho guys. They were hard drinking, and they were filthy-mouthed. But it was a front for their insecurities. . . . They are shattered glass. And that’s what Rip was — broken crystal, and that’s why he could give performances that broke your f – – – ing heart.”

Torn appeared in Broadway’s “Anna Christie” and “The Glass Menagerie,” and made his last performance there in Horton Foote’s 1997 play, “The Young Man From Atlanta.” Torn played a successful businessman whose son committed suicide. Writing in The Post, Clive Barnes called his performance “beautiful in its brusque detail.”

Torn’s career hit a dry a patch in the late ’80s, but he landed a part as a lawyer in Albert Brooks’ very funny 1991 movie, “Defending Your Life.” Garry Shandling loved it, and hired Torn for “The Larry Sanders Show.” Torn was nominated for an Emmy six times for that show, winning one.

But he couldn’t stop drinking. He was arrested in 2010 for breaking into a bank in Connecticut. As The Post reported, he’d been drinking at his local bar and mistook the bank, which was in an old Colonial house, for his house, which also was an old Colonial house. Police found him sleeping on the floor in front of the ATM with his socks tucked into his shoes.

He got sober for a while. I had lunch with him once in the West Village and we drank Diet Cokes, but in the end, he still liked a martini with his oysters.

No one will know what demons haunted him. But as Liz Ashley says, “Actors now can find out everything they need to know about their characters by clicking on the internet. Rip dug into himself. He went through torture and humiliation to find his characters.”

You can hear Michael Riedel weekdays on “Len Berman and Michael Riedel in the Morning” on WOR radio 710.