smoke it, drink it, spend it or love it

by Megan Abbott

I have been watching episodes of an old favorite, The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998), which is finally on DVD in toto (I believe past releases were limited episodes). A behind-the-seasons chronicle of a late-night show helmed by Gary Shandling, the show is precisely the acerbic, winning wonder I remembered. And most of all, for me, a chance to see one of my favorite actors in prime form: the mighty and troubled and brilliant Rip Torn.

Torn plays Artie, the show’s producer, in a performance that I find not just funny and winning but, as the show progresses, seems to take on Shakespearean levels of showbiz cunning, personal loyalty and unabashed sentiment.

It’s what led me to uncover what many believe to be Torn’s most bravura film performance: as a country-western singer in the spectacular Payday (1972), which is sort of like if you took Nashville‘s (1975) darkest storyline and dipped it in kerosene.  With a screenplay by novelist Don Carpenter, it merits its own post here–in fact, a post alone about a particularly enthralling backseat groupie-sex scene. It’s so sleazy and so vivid you almost want to avert your eyes at moments, even as you absolutely can’t.

Described by one critic as “brilliantly gonzo,” Torn was never an uncomplicated man and reading about him is like peering into dark glittering caverns of cultural and personal idiosyncracy. In a terrific 2008 New York Observer piece, writer Spencer Morgan describes having breakfast with Torn:

When I asked for Tabasco, Mr. Torn gave me a knowing look. Then he slipped a hand into a faded blue portage bag he carries everywhere and produced his own bottle. He sprinkled his plate, passed it over, our eyes met. In case you were wondering, the exact contents of that magic satchel remain unknown. Even to his wife.

The aura of coiled mystery surrounding Torn derives heavily from his offscreen life.  Torn was famously accused by Dennis Hopper of pulling a knife on him during an argument, leading to his firing from Easy Rider, to be replaced by Jack Nicholson. (Torn later sued Hopper over the claim, and Hopper recanted.).

Perhaps Torn’s most infamous off-screen moment was his famous fisticuffs with Norman Mailer on the set of Mailer’s Maidstone after what appears to have been some signficant frustration with Mailer’s direction (although discerning the real story here seems to means unraveling a seemingly endless tangle of masculine and artistic insults, aggressions and jealousies ).  The short version is, after trouble on the set, Torn comes after Mailer with a hammer, and Mailer eventually takes out a piece of Torn’s ear. (The longer version is on view here).

It’s an utterly hypnotic thing to watch, these two big bruisers going at each other, with Torn’s cooing words as he considers releasing Mailer from a headlock: “No, baby. No, baby. You know you trust me. You trust me. You trust me. You trust me. You trust me.”

After, Mailer accuses Torn of wanting to assassinate him, and Torn replies, in that scarily mesmerizing post Manson-hippie voice, “That’s your story, man … that’s what you’re pushing.”

Wow. Wow.

8 Responses to “smoke it, drink it, spend it or love it”

  1. I’ve been tearing through the Sanders DVDs myself, and it’s only reinforcing my belief that Artie and Hank are two of the greatest and most layered characters in TV history. I’m glad the set includes one of my favorite episodes: Artie’s drunken binge after Larry pushes him too far, and his brief friendship with the studio’s Russian janitor. The stinger at the end is not only hilarious, but says more about show business friendship than any number of Hollywood memoirs.

  2. Just got my complete set in the mail. Used all of last year’s fantasy baseball winnings to purchase the damn thing. No regrets. (Now I can get rid of all the old VHS copies I had stored on a shelf in my basement. Yay!) It’s true: Artie and Hank are the greatest. Up there with Basil Fawlty and Malcolm Tucker as the most delightful scoundrels ever created for TV.

    Speaking of crazy Rip Torn performances, if you haven’t seen his odd 1969 film, “Coming Apart”, you haven’t seen all of Rip. It’s shot entirely in the reflection of a mirror, from a hidden camera, as a psychiatrist records the troubled women who visit him. A young Sally Kirkland co-stars. It’s an odd one, for sure.

  3. Oh, yes, Hank deserves his OWN post too!
    Russell, I have never, ever seen that but MUST. How did you see it?

  4. I rented “Coming Apart” from my local video store (the good one that’s now gone). It was on VHS. Here’s a link to the trailer.

    I don’t know if it ever came out on DVD.

  5. I can’t get the Mailer/Torn dust-up out of my head. It’s like watching everything emblematic of the 60’s crammed into six minutes. The grainy 16mm color film, the kids and mom wandering in the fields in peasant clothes, the hair, the rambling, drug-fueled dialogue and the explosion into violence. All that plus Mailer himself. Awesome.

  6. When Shandling came up with the idea for Larry Sanders, he’d become the defacto guest host of the Tonight Show as Carson’s tenure trailed off toward retirement. Consequently, the three main characters of the Larry Sanders show are ripped right out of the real characters behind the Tonight Show: Carson, McMahon and Freddie de Cordova, Johnny’s real-life Artie, who, like the fictional character, created a protective barrier between the insecure, frequently disengaged Carson and the legions of fans, guest and hangers-on who wanted a piece of him.

    Taking into consideration what we’ve learned of these real characters in the years since their retirements, Torn was a brilliant choice to become Shandling’s gatekeeper, therapist and man-wife. Torn’s life since the show is kinda sad, but shit, give me all that cash and I’m sure I’d be arrested for drunken debauchery a time or two.

    And if you’re looking for bizarre Torn vehicles on which to celebrate his body of work, please let’s not forget The Beastmaster, where he played the evil Maax, where he was drawn and quartered in the climax of the film.


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