Lawrence Tierney

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Lawrence Tierney, actor: born New York 15 March 1919; married (three children); died Los Angeles 26 February 2002.

One of the screen's foremost "tough guys", Lawrence Tierney came to fame when he played the title role in the classic "B" movie Dillinger (1945). It was a role he continued to be identified with throughout a career which was severely handicapped by his violent life style and heavy drinking.

The brother of the actor Scott Brady, who died in 1985 and with whom he did not get along, Tierney was noted for living a life almost as tough and unruly as that of his screen characters. He was frequently in the headlines for drunken brawls and was arrested several times, including an occasion on which a woman apparently committed suicide by leaping from her New York apartment. In 1955 a newspaper noted that Tierney had been arrested 16 times, more often than Dillinger. A confessed alcoholic, he gave up drinking in 1982 after having a stroke, commenting, "I'd say it was about time. Heck, I threw away about seven careers through drink."

Tierney once more achieved a degree of fame when in 1992 he played the key role of the leader of a gang of brutal killers in Quentin Tarantino's controversial Reservoir Dogs, and on television he played the cosier role of Elaine's father in the sitcom Seinfeld.

Born in 1919 to Irish parents in Brooklyn, New York, where his father was a policeman, Tierney was a star athlete at Brooklyn Boys' High and won many running awards. He received an athletic scholarship to Manhattan College, but after two years he left to work as a labourer on the New York Aqueduct. He worked at a variety of jobs before his looks and fine physique won him the job of a catalogue model for the mail-order firm Sears-Roebuck.

An acting coach who spotted his work suggested that he try the stage, and Tierney joined the Black Friars theatre group and later the American-Irish Theatre, where he was seen by an RKO talent scout and given a film contract in 1943. He had small roles in several B movies, including The Ghost Ship (1943), The Falcon Out West (1944), Youth Runs Wild (1944) and Back to Bataan (1945) before the film which made him a star, Dillinger.

Advertised as a tale "written in bullets, blood and blondes", the film was initially banned in Chicago and other cities where the famous gangster had operated. The publicity helped the low-budget movie (it cost $60,000) make millions all over the world, and it remains a taut and enjoyable thriller, with Tierney memorably menacing in the title role.

RKO then gave the actor a string of tough-guy roles. He was the outlaw Jesse James in Badman's Territory (1946), a reformed prison inmate in San Quentin (1946), and an ex-marine falsely accused of murder in Step By Step (1946). In 1947 he had two of his finest roles in films which have gained a cult reputation, Robert Wise's Born to Kill and Felix Feist's The Devil Thumbs a Ride. The former had an impressive cast, including Claire Trevor, Elisha Cook Jnr (who became a good friend of Tierney's and would go hunting with him in the High Sierras) and Esther Howard. Tierney said,

In the movie studios back then, in the corner, you would have a big urn of coffee. You'd pour your own and it was usually good coffee. The first day that I saw Esther Howard, she came in with her own big thermos bottle. I said, "What's wrong, don't you like our coffee?" And she said, "Oh, this isn't coffee. It's Martinis!" She had a whole load of Martinis with her every day on the film. She was a wonderful person.

In The Devil Thumbs a Ride, Tierney played a particularly vicious hitch-hiker, and he recently told the interviewer Rick McKay that despite the film's cult status he did not enjoy making it:

I resented those pictures they put me in. I never thought of myself as that kind of guy. I thought of myself as a nice guy who wouldn't do rotten things. I hated that character so much but I had to do it for the picture.

He had a more sympathetic role as a widow's minder who is suspected of murder in Richard Fleischer's Bodyguard (1948), co-written by Robert Altman, but by the end of the decade Tierney's off-screen exploits had become more notable than his screen roles. Accounts of bar-room brawls, drunken driving and scrapes with the law gave newspapers such headlines as "Film 'Dillinger' Booked on Drunk Charge", "Actor Tierney Must Sleep on Jail Floor" and "Tierney Goes to Jail Again". Photos showed him barefoot and in straps being taken to a "neurological hospital".

Tierney's screen roles began to get smaller – in Joseph Pevney's excellent thriller about an unscrupulous photographer Shakedown (1950), Tierney was fourth-billed as a gangster, and in Best of the Badmen (1951) he had a subsidiary role playing Jesse James for the second time. When he played a small role in the epic circus drama The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), the director Cecil B. DeMille asked Paramount to put Tierney under contract, but before negotiations had been concluded the actor had been arrested again for fighting in a bar and the contract was dropped.

He returned to the stage when the actress Betsy von Furstenburg, who had fallen in love with him, suggested him for the role of Duke Mantee (the part that made Bogart famous) in a touring version of The Petrified Forest in which the actress was starring with Franchot Tone. "He stole the show," said von Furstenburg, and Tierney later stated, "I was good. But the money was in the movies."

There were no film roles, though, as Tierney continued to face a string of arrests, for fracturing a man's jaw, knocking down a woman's door, hitting a policeman, breaking into a woman's apartment and punching her boyfriend. In 1963 his friend John Cassavetes gave him a role in A Child is Waiting, which starred Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland ("Garland was very nice. Easy to work with, no matter what they say").

Tierney then moved to France for several years, though his alcoholism and scrapes with the law continued. Michael Tierney, the son of Lawrence's brother Edward, said,

Larry was married once, I guess. It was a long time ago. He lived in Europe for a long time. He has a couple of kids out there somewhere.

He added,

I have a three-quarter sister by him. He met my mother first, before my dad, and had a kid by her. She's my sister, but we have the same mother and her father is my uncle. Very Chinatown.


Tierney returned to the United States in the late Sixties, and in January 1973 the New York Post ran a headline, " 'Dillinger' Star Is Stabbed", over a story that in a row outside a bar on 9th Avenue the actor had required surgery for a serious stab wound in the abdomen. In June 1975 a news report stated,

Former movie actor Lawrence Tierney was questioned then released by police in connection with the apparent suicide leap of a 24-year old woman from the fourth-floor window of her midtown apartment. Tierney told police that he had come to visit the woman, Bonnie Jones, and "had just gotten there, and she just went out the window".

The actor had a variety of jobs in the Seventies, including bartender, construction worker and driving a horse-drawn hansom-cab in Central Park, and he found occasional film work – in Otto Preminger's Such Good Friends (1975) he had a bit role as a security guard. The following year he was in Andy Warhol's Bad ("A terrible experience – unprofessional") and he had a small role in Cassavetes' Gloria (1980). In 1982 he was in John Huston's Prizzi's Honor. "Huston just called," said Tierney,

and told me he had always wanted to work with me and had thought of me for

parts a lot before, including The Asphalt Jungle, but it never happened. I thought he was a brilliant director.

Reactivating his career, though now overweight and bald, Tierney guest-starred on several television shows, including Star Trek: The Next Generation, Fame and Remington Steele, and he had a recurring role on Hill Street Blues. His voice was heard in The Simpsons, and on screen he was Ryan O'Neal's father in Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987) and Bruce Willis's father in Armageddon (1998), but his most memorable later role was that of the sinister Joe who organises the criminal gang in Reservoir Dogs: "Tarantino is all right. Very full of himself. I thought the film was OK. I can't knock it, right?"

Tierney had still not lost his penchant for trouble, though, and his agent Don Gerler commented recently,

He's sober now, but a few years back I was still bailing him out of jail. He was 75 years old and still the toughest guy in the bar!

His nephew Michael said,

The people who knew Larry knew that wasn't all that there was to Larry. He was a wacky, kind of quirky, comical guy, and a very nice man to a lot of people.

Tom Vallance