Rip Torn the Most Paranoid Man Ever
'Let's Get a Rip Torn Type'
by Michael Zwerin
If you want to laugh at an actor named Rip Torn, that's your problem. Born Elmore Torn 37 years ago in Temple, Texas, he was nicknamed Rip around the house as a kid. Grown up, he sees no reason to change it just because it reminds some people of Tab Hunter or Rock Hudson. He knows how good he is.
Rip is also the most paranoid man I've ever met, so paranoid that after receiving his second "Obie" in a row for directing Michael McClure's "The Beard" -- the first was for the role of Marion Faye in Norman Mailer's "Deer Park" -- he suspected it was all because the CIA was setting him up for some sinister purpose.
"Have you seen 'Hud'? Paul Newman asked me after it was released. 'I hope you like it,' Newman said, 'because Hud is you.'
Original caption: Rip Torn & wife Geraldine Page
"I didn't think that was too funny. I was broke as usual at the time and I thought Paul might at least have laid a percentage on me. Also, if I ever wanted to make a western, everybody would say I was doing a Newman number. But when I saw it, it wasn't me at all. I told Paul, 'I'm a very complicated guy -- I can only get about 10 per cent of me, how come you think you can get it all?"
We are in a room which, if it were together, would be his study. Books, records, beer cans, overflowing ash trays, sporting equipment, and excess furniture clutter everywhere. It is dark and needs a painting. Looking out through battered and crooked black rimmed glasses, Rip reminds me of a shy, vulnerable little boy with insensitive parents, looking for empathy.
The sign over the bell says "TORN PAGE." He and Geraldine occupy three floors of a brownstone which they just purchased (with her money the rumor goes) in the West 20s. They have three children: Angelica, five, and four-year-old twins, Jonathan and Anthony. The house is a swept, lived-in mess geared for kids. There are crayon scrawls all over the walls, toys in every corner and underfoot.
As a young boy, Rip loved to go fishing. One day he had no bits and, when his line tangled on a rock, he pretended it was a fish -- gritting his teeth, bracing himself, fighting it acting it out. A group of people across the stream started shouting encouragement: "You can get him, boy...hold on now...you can bring him in..."
"Not catching any fish isn't so bad if you enjoy fishing," Rip says.
At 16, he and a bunch of Texas buddies went through a season of playing the "coon game" across the tracks, hitting black cats on the head with socks full of bars of soap.
The expression "red-ass" started in Texas A and M, military college. "It gives me the red-ass," they say in the army. Rip remembers his backside looking "like oozing plasma" from being hazed with shaved down baseball bats. Texas A and M teaches a man how to make pain. Manhood through brutality. Can you take it, boy? "End as a Man." Rip learned fast. After two years he dropped out.
Believing firmly in Louella Parson's vision of Hollywood, he hitched there. He had grown up with weapons and thought nothing of the unlicensed pistol in his pocket. Arriving in L..A., and mistaking it for civilization, he went to the police station to turn it in, asking them to certify that it was his so he could ship it back to Texas for safekeeping.
Instead he was booked and charged with eight unsolved robberies committed with the same type weapon. He in no way resembled the suspects, but it took two days in jail to clear the matter up, and then they confiscated his pistol. That was Rip Torn's welcome to Hollywood. It's enough to make a guy paranoid.
The first Hollywood party goes like this. Scott Brady was starring in "Light Up the Sky" at the Laguna Beach Playhouse. A little man was trying to change a tire on a big car in front. Rip helped him. The guy was the set designer at the theatre and invited him backstage. There he met Scott Brady and went to his party. He got completely bombed like everybody else and passed out with an unconscious girl on top of him. It might have become a real orgy if everybody hadn't started retching, groaning, and puking all over the place. The hors d'oeuvres, it turned out, were tainted...
Another rumor -- Rip "ran off" with Mike McClure after "The Cuban Thing" closed. Rip may or may not be a hostile, belligerent, paranoid bastard, and he may or may not be one of the best actors in America, but one thing he isn't is a faggot. I tell him about it.
"You know what that is?" I pour some wine. "Wishful thinking." He stares me down again. "Here's where it's at -- Eitel, the director in 'Deer Park,' has a tough line after Marion makes a pass at him. He considers it for a while and he's tempted but he finally says no, because that's what the machinery wants us to be -- faggots. If you're a faggot then they've got you nailed. They can put you away, dismiss you. You're a faggot. I'd like to meet the guy who told you that. Mike's my brother, and I guess the idea of two strong cats making it together turned him on. Here's another story that came back to me. Some big English director -- I won't mention his name -- was asked, 'Do you know Rip Torn?' He said, 'My dear, I've had him.' And I've never even met the cat."
Rip looks disgusted. His bag holding important personal papers fell off the rack of his big bike on the way over. He discovered it in front of my place. Instead of retracing his route right away, he's lounging comfortably in my easy chair drinking wine and rapping. Julie, a small girl who has been sitting silent, listening somewhat in awe, offers to go out and look for it. He says fine, draws her a map of the route, and, although she has no driver's license and has only driven a bike once -- a small Honda at that -- offers her his key. Fortunately, she has enough sense to refuse it.
The loss of the bag has put him extremely up-tight. He drinks and talks fast.
On politics: "Nixon is a motherfucker triumphant. Yeah. But you know, when he makes that victory salute -- he's got his arms up and his shoulders are around his ears -- there must be some part of him that's embarrassed about the spectacle he's making. it's not really a full take like 'come on, give it to me and I'll die for you.' It looks more like they coached him but he really can't make it. He's a bad actor."
"Then there's Humpty Dumpty. I said to Mailer that George Wallace would chew Humpty Dumpty and Icky Dicky right up if they ever got together. He said, 'No, they would work out a deal with him and then slowly poison him..." Rip starts to choke from laughing.
On acting: "A guy talked to me about doing a tv series when I was in LA last month. I told him I had already served my years soldiering for my country. Why should I sign up for five more years of bondage? Of course for that bondage you're made a millionaire so it's not bad bondage. There's nothing wrong with it except that I don't dig it. For a lot of people, though, it's the prize.
"Some people say about me, 'Why isn't Rip bothered by not being a star?' I know I can be a star, I just don't choose to be. But I could dig it in a way; there's a motherfucker triumphant residing in all of us. I could go for the total number...
About Norman Mailer: "He's beautiful; he's such a beautiful cat...I really love him. One time we got blasted at Casey's bar after a performance of 'Deer Park, and he asked me -- he caught me completely off guard. 'You have an older brother?' I said, 'You, you are!'"
About himself: "In the American sexual/political ethic, they nail cats that speak the truth as fags, or some other sexual aberration. Then they can dismiss the truth on that level. I'm willing to lay the book of my life out to any of those bullshit artists...Let's fact it; the words I say can sign my death warrant. But I've done it so many times, why shouldn't I do it now? The Confederacy has won. The United States is the South. The South has risen again and they control the military, the congress...they control the country. And their aim is to control the world. Their axis is our South, South Africa, Rhodesia, Spain, Germany -- and an awful lot of people in between...are you going to print all of this? I mean these are tough things to say...
"At least people will know I'm still alive. Terry Southern told me a funny story. He worked on the screenplay for a movie called 'The Cincinnati Kid.' The producers were sitting around trying to cast one of the roles, a bad-ass type. Somebody said, 'What we need is a Rip Torn type.' Terry said, "Well, don't think I'm trying to be weird or anything, but why don't we get Rip Torn?' They looked at him like he was some kind of nut. I guess they figured I was in jail or dead or something."
Julie comes back without the bag. "This sort of thing happens to me every time I'm about to leave the country," Rip says, draining the last of the half gallon of wine which was full when we started.
I realize I've crossed from role to reality myself; by now I consider Rip a friend rather than a subject. He is as large as life and my life is larger since meeting him.
Maybe it's the wine, but I feel close enough to tell him this: "Look, man, if you're a loser it's your own fault. Your bag with all your identification and papers falls off your bike and instead of going back to look for it, you sit here drinking wine complaining for an hour. Then you send Julie out for it; you should have gone yourself. You even offer to let her use your bike. That chick can't drive a bike. She doesn't even have a driver's license. She'd have cracked it up and then you would have been more paranoid than ever."
Rip stretched out on the couch, listening to my little lecture. He starts to raise the left corner of his mouth in a sardonic smile and then laughs out loud. "I don't give a fuck," he says.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]