Lawrence Tierney arrived in Hollywood in 1943 under a $75 per week contract at RKO. After a few bit parts in movies such as Youth Runs Wild and a relevant supporting role in The Ghost Ship (1943) Lawrence was cast in his breakout film as the title role in Dillinger (1945.)
Tierney was born in Brooklyn in 1919. The elder brother of actor Scott Brady (aka Gerard Tierney) Tierney was athletic in high school, excelling in track, and won a scholarship to Manhattan College.
Various menial jobs ensued before his looks landed him a role as model in Sear’s Robuck catalogs. A stint in the Irish American theater soon after garnered interest by RKO studios and subsequently he was put under contract.
Dillinger was a smash hit for Tierney and Monogram Pictures (RKO loaned him out for the project). The film broke many box office records and the screenplay was nominated for an Oscar. This made Tierney an instant star.
Many leading roles followed, mostly as gangsters (a popular genre at the time) based on the strength of his acting abilities playing tough guys and notorious criminals.
Standout roles include Born To Kill (1947), directed by Robert Wise and starring opposite Claire Trevor, and The Devil Thumbs A Ride (1947) in which he played a character so despicable (and liked) that the role and movie is still much talked about today.
Young and brash and being a new star in Hollywood, Tierney found his way to booze and brawls early in his career and it took a toll.
Front page news nationwide would see Tierney’s name splashed across the headlines from 1946 into the early 70’s in what at first appeared as somewhat salacious Hollywood gossip and later descended into news of a violent man who had lost all self-control.
Tierney was given numerous chances to redeem himself but by 1950 his career was on the skids. No longer under contract at RKO Tierney acted in The Hoodlum (1951) for independent producers, a low-budget stand out performance.
Soon after The Hoodlum, Cecil B. De Mille cast Tierney as the villain who causes the train wreck in the Oscar-winning best picture, The Greatest Show On Earth (1952).
In 1957 Tierney was in Italy while Steve Reeves was making Hercules (1958). After borrowing Reeves Corvette and heading out on a date, Tierney had a terrible car accident in which his young lady passenger died. He fled the scene and ran to Spain where he was arrested and imprisoned on manslaughter charges for two years.
Back in Los Angeles in the early 1960’s, Tierney fathered a child (shortly after his mother’s suicide) while his troubles with the law continued. With numerous bench warrants for his arrest, and beckoning fatherhood not his cup of tea, Tierney left Hollywood for good. After a short time in New York he moved to France and worked as an actor doing English language voice-overs for French movies, among other types of jobs.
Back in New York in the early 70’s, Tierney would find hell again in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, surviving as a bartender and construction worker in the seedy New York of the 1970’s, living amongst a new generation of cops and hoods that littered a New York City that is gone today.
It was around this time in 1973 that Tierney was stabbed in a brawl outside a bar on New York’s 5th avenue.
In 1975, Tierney reached a new low when his girlfriend at the time jumped to her death from her apartment window and Tierney, who was present at the time, was questioned and released. No charges were filed and the death was ruled a suicide, but the dark cloud over Tierney continued to loom.
After being cast in a small part in the blockbuster smash hit Arthur (1981) Tierney got the acting bug again and started doing the rounds in New York. He was cast as a punch drunk fighter in James Cagney’s last project, a TV Movie called Terrible Joe Moran (1984).
Shortly before his brother Edward’s death in December of 1983 Tierney filmed a 30 second television spot for a national Excedrin commercial playing a construction worker.
It was with this warning, a national Excedrin campaign playing on the major television networks during the Christmas season (and into the New Year) that Lawrence Tierney arrived back in Hollywood in December of 1983.
Better behaved, and mostly sober, Tierney had luck and an affectionate reputation as a sort of notorious bad guy on his side. He rekindled his career in Hollywood and was cast as guest star on many TV shows including Hunter, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and a small recurring role on the TV series Hill St Blues. Supporting roles in such big screen movies as Prizzi’s Honor, Silver Bullet, and the outrageous comedy Naked Gun were also filmed.
Clearly back on his feet, and taking his career seriously, Tierney was cast as Ryan O’Neal’s hard drinking father, Dougy Madden, in Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance.
The role garnered Tierney quality reviews and attention. Many good roles in TV and movies followed, including a classic episode of Seinfeld in which he played Elaine’s father.
Soon after this he was cast as the notorious gang leader Joe Cabot in Quentin Tarantino’s breakout debut Reservoir Dogs (1992). The role (and success of the film) would bookend Tierney’s career as a gangster actor and bring him a level of success and accolades Tierney hadn’t seen in some time.
But Reservoir Dogs is a movie that almost didn’t happen. After being fired and then re-hired the same day by Quentin Tarantino a few days into filming, Tierney got terribly drunk and unloaded a .357 Magnum through the walls of his Hollywood apartment, landing himself in jail.
Too late to be re-cast, and with no one his age that could replace him, the news of his arrest was carefully kept from Tarantino and the films producers. Tierney finished the film, producing a performance that is both brash and authentic (with a touch of black humor), and clearly served as an anchor for the success of the film.
Now in his 70’s, Tierney’s worked steady after Dogs and enjoyed a few years of increasing demand for his work. But a stroke in 1995 would slow him down considerably.
Still he was cast as the tough old oil driller Graps, father of Bruce Willis, in Michael Bay’s Armageddon (1998).
It was this act of God (Armageddon) that would finally put an end to Tierney’s career as an actor. He retired from acting, willingly and peacefully, and enjoyed his final years in Hollywood surrounded by friends and family.
Lawrence Tierney died in his sleep in February 2002. He was 82.