Rip Torn and the world of television drama
While Rip Torn may be best remembered for his work, in later years, on television in “The Larry Sanders Show,” he received many of his first breaks — and delivered some of his most memorable early performances — in television dramas of the 1950s and 1960s.
His death, at age 88, reminds us how these programs played vital roles in developing the early careers of so many actors and directors who went on to build successful portfolios.
Here’s a look at a few of these vintage programs.
“The United States Steel Hour” (1953 to 1963). It is quite common, in the early days of television, for major companies to sponsor the telecast of dramatic stories. Week after week, original stories and scripts, usually adapted from books and movies, appear in lavish productions often promoted by this iconic company as “The Theater Guild of the Air.” Rip Torn appears in three “Steel Hour” productions in the late 1950s, including such titles “Wetback Run,” “The Little Bullfighter” and “The Charmer.”
“The Kraft Theatre” (1947 to 1958). Another major company, Kraft, also puts its name on a series of live television productions. And, in these early days of television, producing a live broadcast often limits the visual possibilities while adding to the dramatic tension. Torn becomes a familiar face on this series, too, appearing in such episodes “Mock Trial, “ “The Murder of a Sand Flea,” “The Killer Instinct” and “Eddie.”
“Playhouse 90” (1956 to 1961). Of the many television dramas of early television, this program sets the quality standard for actors thanks to excellent writing, creative direction and precise productions. Such directors as John Frankenheimer, George Roy Hill and Sidney Lumet get their first breaks crafting programs for this series before moving on to the movies. And Torn appears in such episodes as “Bomber’s Moon, “Face of a Hero” and the well-regarded “The Tunnel” in 1959.
“The Untouchables” (1959 to 1963). Gradually, the filmed drama becomes the norm on television as live telecasts are replaced by the efficiencies of video tape and film. In these transition years, few shows are as popular with viewers as this adaptation of the memoir of Prohibition agent Eliot Ness. Torn appears in two episodes on this Emmy-winning show, as Harry Strauss in “The Masterpiece” in 1961 and as Johnny Mizo in “The Spoiler” in 1963.
“The Dick Powell Show” (1961 to 1963). In the 1940s, Dick Powell had been a matinee idol in the movies. Then, when television became popular in the 1950s, he began a series of original dramas for the “Zane Grey Theater.” This later program, eventually renamed with his name, becomes a popular training ground for such soon-to-be-famous movie directors as Blake Edwards, Sam Peckinpah, Ralph Nelson and Arthur Hiller. At the same time Torn appears on the big screen in “Sweet Bird of Youth,” he plays Joel Coles on a 1962 episode titled, “Crazy Sunday.”
“Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (1955 to 1965). Perhaps the most famous early television thrillers — next to Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” — appear each week following a chilling introduction by this famed movie director. Yes, Hitchcock loves to shock and delight with every possible reference to what might surprise and frighten. Torn finds himself in two episodes for master director Hitchcock, in 1955 in “Number Twenty-Two” and, in 1961, in “The Kiss-Off.”
“Route 66” (1960 to 1964). As television cameras become portable in the early 1960s, stories begin to open up on the small screen. This popular program follows the fictionalized adventures of two young men as they travel the United States in an always-shiny Corvette convertible along, you got it, famed US highway 66. Torn shows up in a 1963 episode, “Who Will Cheer My Bonnie Bride,” as a man named Alvah Clayhorne.
Yes, these early days of television launched many careers. And such programs would give Rip Torn many chances to show what an actor he could be. Take a look online, via YouTube or other streaming services at these vintage episodes. You will have a lot of fun.