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Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century: 29: Rip Torn, Actor

HE COULD have been Jack Nicholson. According to Hollywood legend, Rip Torn was due to play the part the then unknown Nicholson played in Easy Rider, but withdrew from the film for unspecified reasons.

The director, Dennis Hopper, claimed on a chat show that the actor was sacked from the picture after pulling a knife on him in a diner, a claim that cost Hopper $475,000 in libel damages in a Californian court, but one that fits rather nicely with Torn's abrasive image.

Knife or no knife, Rip Torn's failure to become a Hollywood superstar has blessed us with what may be the most brilliant comic turn in television history, the producer Artie in the midnight-dark satire The Larry Sanders Show, a work of genius and arguably as memorable as any of Nicholson's movie work .

The Larry Sanders Show has been justly praised as a deftly aimed kick in the teeth to the world of television and the cult of celebrity, but it is much more than that. Thanks in no small part to Rip Torn's Artie, the television programme transcends mere pastiche to become something approaching Greek tragedy.

Its terrible, self-absorbed characters - the monstrous egotist Larry, his emotionally-stunted sidekick Hank, the insecure writer Phil, and workaholic, womanising Artie - are the authors of their own downfall, well-rewarded materially but unable to break free from the emptiness at the centre of their lives.

When Larry (Garry Shandling) tries to escape from the show to some rural idyll, he is brought up sharp by Artie. "You're a talk show host," growls the producer, "like some creature from goddam Greek mythology - half-man, half-desk."

Artie knows there is no way out. In a previous episode he had fled to Italy to try and revive an old love-affair, which crumbled when, instead of dining al fresco on a moonlit Venetian balcony, he crept back inside to watch a dubbed Larry Sanders Show on Italian cable TV. Phil tries to build a new career as a sitcom writer, but when they mess with his script he returns to the comfort blanket of the show. Hank's plans to open a successful restaurant are constantly doomed to failure.

These are, of course, situations created by writers, but it is the acting, particularly Rip Torn's, that makes them real and rather poignant. Torn is brilliant even in scenes where he says nothing. As Larry and Hank argue over some piffling matter, Artie stands there taking it all in, brow furrowing, scowl deepening, as he decides which way he must jump to keep the show afloat. The show is all. In that sense, the programme is a satire not just on television but also on any kind of office life, where the cardboard boxes or custard creams being produced must take precedence over personal relationships.

Garry Shandling has said that much of his business with Artie is improvised, something Rip Torn is perfectly qualified to do, having trained at Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio in New York in the Fifties and being a great advocate of method acting. His insistence on authenticity has led to a reputation for being "difficult", not unlike Artie.

He also did his career no favours by speaking out against the Vietnam war and aligning himself with the civil rights movement. But his day has arrived. It is a minor miracle that something as dark and risky as The Larry Sanders Show could come from the ultra-safe world of American television.

For Rip Torn - brilliant also in films such as Defending Your Life (1991) and Payday (1972) - it is the perfect vehicle for his method acting. Shandling may insist that he will make no more episodes of Larry Sanders, but surely there can be no escape for these people now.