High Times Greats: Rip Torn

From blacklisted to ’30 Rock.’
High Times Greats: Rip Torn
Rip Torn by Robert Mapplethorpe

Back in the ’50s Elia Kazan called him “another Brando,” but within a decade this gifted actor was virtually blacklisted from the screen for daring to organize strikes by performers, speaking out against the Vietnam War and refusing to compromise with the Hollywood establishment. Then, following the culture hero’s artistic triumphs in roles ranging from Richard Nixon in the TV miniseries Blind Ambition to Howard Hughes in Sam Shepard’s play Seduced, Craig Ryes paid tribute to Rip Torn (1931-2019) for the July, 1980 issue of High Times, and he got the last laugh on them all. In honor of the beloved late actor’s birthday on February 6, we’re republishing the article here.

For Rip Torn, one of America’s finest character actors, most of the “Me Decade” passed by as the era of Not Him. It was not that choice roles were not available. It was just that some director, producer or elusive phantom figure inevitably would wave his index finger negatively in a lateral direction, and the word would come down: “Not him!”

Why not him? Rip says, his eyes squinting warily from some psychic foxhole, “They didn’t want me to work because of my politics.”

In this drama, “they” never appear; only their restraining force is felt. When Torn began his career in the mid ’50s he was heralded by Elia Kazan as “another James Dean, another Marlon Brando.” “I felt like a little balloon floating off into never-never land,” Rip recalled.

A decade later, when he should have been approaching the height of his career, Torn found himself in the dreaded space of the Hollywood star wars—unemployed. It was then that a voice in his head began exclaiming repeatedly, “The force is against you! The force is against you!”

For Rip Torn the Not Him Decade lasted over ten years. But he never lost heart, never gave up the mission. I remember in the early ’70s accompanying Rip to a taping of the Dick Cavett show. Cavett was on network television and the war in Vietnam was in full swing. Rip grew weary of Cavett’s insipid questions about what movie his wife, Geraldine Page, was making, and he shifted the conversation to a then controversial subject: the recognition of “Red” China. Cavett’s director jumped up and signaled wildly for a commercial, cutting Rip in mid sentence. Afterward, Cavett was back with a new guest.

A short time later, Rip appeared on the David Susskind show. When the actor said he felt he was being blacklisted, Susskind shot back: “You weren’t blacklisted for political reasons.” Another guest, actor Larry Luckinbill, added sarcastically, “We can’t all be outlaws.”

But by anyone’s standard, Rip Torn was an outlaw. When other actors kept quiet and sold products, Rip demonstrated in behalf of political prisoners, organized a Broadway actors’ strike, helped bring post-revolutionary Cuban culture to the United States and, worst of all, would not make compromises he felt demeaned the artistry of his profession. So uncompromising has been his commitment that Lee Strasberg, who once considered Rip one of his most promising pupils at the Actors Studio, opined derisively: ‘‘Rip Torn’s problem is that he never learned that business is business and art is art.”

When I first met Rip in 1971, he occupied a position in this country akin to a Russian dissident. Although the reasons he wasn’t working were political, a whispering campaign sibilated paranoia—a suspicion Rip reinforced by characteristically cocking his head back at a 60-degree angle and narrowing his eyes until crevices rippled across his forehead. This intensely scrutinizing glance was harmless enough, but it gave Rip the aura of the unpredictable, something that he infused into every character. But it made him famous.

In the early ’70s Rip acted in a series of noncommercial pictures like Norman Mailer’s Maidstone, Joseph Strick’s Tropic of Cancer and Milton Ginsberg’s Coming Apart, a soft-core psychological porno film about a lecherous psychiatrist (a role that Rip recreated brilliantly as Dr. Renatus Hartogs in ABC’s nonfiction TV movie Betrayal).

But Rip remained preoccupied about “them.” His spirit was almost broken because “they” were blacklisting him. In Hollywood I was told that Rip was simply a paranoid. When I mentioned this to Rip he shook his head and replied, “I don’t see much peace between me and Hollywood. I know that I don’t give a damn what they say. I don’t give a damn what the fuck excuses they make—or what group would come forward and say that it was an exaggeration. I know purely and simply my work was taken away by those cocksuckers! And I was only offered little itsy-bitsy kinds of shit-eating roles for no money, to come prove that maybe I wasn’t fucked-up, or maybe I was good enough to play their brand. But you know, they’re all full of shit.”

In the mid ’60s, when Rip was making money (he had just completed The Cincinnati Kid, You’re a Big Boy Now and Beach Red), he bought a partially reconstructed colonial villa in northern Mexico that he used as a hunting and fishing hideaway. While there he met a Frenchman named Delaurot, who tried to convince him to make a film of Latin American guerrilla activity. Delaurot is one of those strange people who keep popping up in Rip’s life—not one of “them,” but maybe on the payroll. As Rip puts it, “Every time a bust goes down, he walks away. I told him the film—this heightened reality thing—was all bullshit. The bishop lives across the street, the CIA guy is down the street—there’s no way you can get away with this.” Delaurot told Rip he was paranoid. So were the Mexican authorities, who, because of Delaurot, deported Rip for, they claimed, spreading Commie propaganda, dope and guerrilla insurrection. According to Rip, however, he was deported because of pressure from U.S. authorities. Rip was innocent, but the incident convinced him more than ever that somebody had it in for him.

The reasons remain vague. Rip was too much of an individualist to be caught in any ideological snare. As an actor he is concerned more with political character than political line. The character that intrigued him the most was the nation’s foremost political actor, whom he studied on TV every night: Richard Milhous Nixon.

Rip translated his study into a video plot of Shakespeare’s Richard III, in which Rip played Richard as a debased Nixon who exits the stage crying, “Some horse! Some horse! My kingdom for some horse!”

Rip was fascinated with Nixon’s gestures and speech. Nixon, who was the most calculating of political beings, was subject to sudden acts of psychomotor terrorism, involuntary physical responses that sabotaged his political masks. For example, Torn noticed that before the camera the former president’s upper lip would begin to glisten with beads of sweat. As the rest of the country listened to Nixon’s carefully studied phrases, Rip was watching him try and figure out ways to raise his finger and squeegee away the schvitz. When his media advisers warned Nixon against this, Rip studied speeches for points when the president’s hand would jerk toward its upper-lip trajectory only to be wrestled down in a Strangelovian grip.

Although the Jefferson Airplane agreed to play backup on Rip’s Richard III, no one would back the production and the project came to naught. It was not until Nixon was put out in the San Clemente pasture in disgrace that Rip Torn started to work again. Perhaps Rip sensed that behind the mysterious force against him, Nixon was the one! Yet ironically it was Richard Nixon who helped Rip end a decade of blacklist and despair.

Rip’s next chance to work came, interestingly enough, from David Susskind, who had just bought the rights to John Dean’s Watergate memoir, Blind Ambition, for a CBS-TV miniseries. Larry Luckinbill (who had appeared years earlier on the Susskind show with Rip) was cast to play Nixon, but at the last minute he dropped out. When Rip went to audition for the part with long hair and a beard, Susskind was extremely skeptical.

Rip explained later, “Susskind thought I’d be too villainous, but I played Nixon as a real person without caricature.’’ And then he laughed in an evil staccato baritone. “I wanted to treat Nixon better than he treated me.”

For two weeks Torn rehearsed with long hair and beard, constantly fearful that Susskind would fire him for not portraying a convincing Nixon. So he buckled down and went through a total character transformation, first shearing his locks, then going about complete facial reconstruction.

“Nixon’s face is like a Hubbard squash,” Rip recounted recently in a Chelsea bar as he speared clams from a garlic-and-wine sauce. “It bulges at the top, then comes in like an hourglass. My face is kind of heart-shaped. When Nixon smiled his lip got caught up on his teeth like this.” (Rip perched his lip over some imaginary enamel ridges.) “His caps are much longer than mine.”

Torn’s dental surgeon made the molds for his teeth. “This was my dental surgeon’s chance to get back at Nixon! Bob O’Bradovich, a makeup artist, made me a bunch of Nixon noses, but we decided the real Nixon nose was too grotesque for television. So I just stuffed Kleenex up my nostrils and packed two chewing-tobacco wads in my cheeks to get that chipmunk look.”

But where Rip excelled was in capturing the innermost Tricky Dick. One day John Dean came on the set and was startled by similarities between Rip and his former boss. Dean told Rip, “You sound exactly like him. It’s absolutely unnerving.” And on the ad libs, Dean, who was Nixon’s personal lawyer (someone who paid close attention to detail), remarked that Rip invariably picked the same words Nixon had used.

“I’ve always maintained,” said Rip, “that politics are concerned more with art than with politics. I asked Dean, ‘Didn’t Nixon consider himself a pretty good actor?’ Dean was startled. Nixon had once told him, ‘I can put on any face. I can laugh or cry when I want to.’” Rip leaned back and chortled. “Richard III said the same thing.” Then, after a pause, “I think for them both the tragic face was the best.”

Since Blind Ambition, Rip’s been working regularly. Previously cast as outcast violent types, he has lately fallen into a succession of roles as rich, powerful men—roles for which Rip, the poor, scruffy outsider, has had to search deeply to pinpoint an emotional memory. He played Howard Hughes in Sam Shepard’s play Seduced; an oily Southern senator in The Seduction of Joe Tynan; a record-company exec in an as yet untitled movie with Paul Simon; and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Buck Henry’s The First Family, due to be released next year by Warner Brothers.

Despite these achievements, Rip’s private passion is theater. Starting his own company is a project he has dreamed about for a long time. Last February he began the Sanctuary Theatre. It’s located in Greenwich House, a New York community settlement house. When you ask Rip who’s in it, he says, “It’s an organic group of people who come and go.”

Part of its human liquidity may be due to the financial end. “Artists aren’t paid,” says Rip. “Art is looked on as its own reward—and most of the time it is. You pay for drugs because you can measure it. You can’t measure art.”

Although the theater does classics, for Rip it is still a preeminently political vehicle. “Whatever unnerves you. I’m gonna do. Whatever provokes you, I’m gonna do. The theater reflects the times. That’s why it’s subversive.”

Times for Rip Tom have finally changed. “They” don’t seem to prevent him from working anymore. “Although,” he adds, squinting carefully into the future, “when we opened our theater we had this big benefit with Warren Beatty, Burt Reynolds, Diane Keaton, et cetera, and not one word got mentioned about it in the media. I mean, don’t you find that a little bit strange?”

1 comment
  1. I watch “Down Periscope” over-and-over because Rip Torn was in it.
    “Damn it, man, don’t go by the book. Think like a Pirate. I need a man with a tattoo on his dick. Do I have such a man?”

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