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.”