Rip Torn, who died Tuesday at the age of 88, will be remembered for his powerhouse roles in comedies like The Larry Sanders Show and Dodgeball. His hulking presence on screen was utilized by comedians for decades, providing a bellowing, albeit over-confident foil to neurotic comedy archetypes like the titular Sanders character in Garry Shandling’s beloved HBO show. But before Torn became a comedy super-weapon, he found his place in the ’70s American film movement as a strapping leading man in movies like The Man Who Fell to Earth, Payday, and the experimental Norman Mailer project, Maidstone.
Maidstone, a self-aggrandizing, bonkers project that could be from no other era in film than the 1970s American New Wave, was Mailer’s improvisational attempt to blur the line between documentary and reality. Mailer played a version of himself in the film (of course), as a film director turned political candidate, and Torn was enlisted to play the director’s contentious brother. During production of Maidstone, Torn and Mailer flew into a bareknuckle brawl that started somewhat improvised, but soon became very real. Luckily for us, the entire battle was captured on camera.
The clip has become footage of legend for film nerds. It depicts in verité form the two curly-haired maniacs panting, thrashing, biting, and screaming like crazy idiots in an open field. Yes, Rip Torn hits Mailer with a hammer. Yes, Mailer responds by biting Torn’s ear. It’s not clear when the fight transitions from documentary role play to real-life brawling. Torn says at the outset of the fight “I don’t want to kill Mailer, but I must kill Kingsley.” The latter is the name of the character Mailer is playing in the film. Like Jim Carrey in Man on the Moon, it seems Torn had gone so deep into his performance that he began to forego, whether consciously or not, the safety of his coworkers in favor of the film‘s production.
Torn was not known for being much of a peacemaker in his day. The actor famously duked it out with Dennis Hopper while discussing the lead role in Hopper’s now-iconic Easy Rider, dashing his chances at playing the film’s protagonist and irrevocably reshaping the trajectory of his career (Jack Nicholson would go on to play the role to huge acclaim). Alec Baldwin, himself something of a pugilist, recounted on his episode of Comedians in Cars the experience of working with Torn on 30 Rock, and insane stories of violence the legendary film and television player used to share. If you have Netflix, it’s worth a look.
Torn, like many of his contemporaries from the ’70s New Wave, was a figment of an older, more anarchic era of Hollywood. Some call the ’70s the heyday of American film. But after watching dumb fights like this one, it’s hard to look at the era as anything other than a time of utter, unchecked madness.