Lawrence Tierney by Laura Wagner

This is posted by permission from Laura Wagner, a writer and film buff who is working on a book about Lawrence Tierney movies. Thanks Laura for sharing this on Larry’s 93rd birthday in March!

Happy Birthday to Lawrence Tierney by Laura Wagner

(03/15/2012) Happy birthday to LAWRENCE TIERNEY (1919-2002), one of the supreme tough guys of film, best known for Dillinger and Quentin Tarantino’s RESERVOIR DOGS. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of an Irish-American policeman. Tierney’s brothers both became actors: Gerard, better known as Scott Brady (1924-85), had the best career in the family; Edward (1928-83) had the briefest run. In high school, Tierney was an athlete, winning awards for track and field. He entered Manhattan College on an athletic scholarship, but dropped out two years later to work as a laborer on the New York Aqueduct. He had many jobs prior to his years in Hollywood, including working as a catalogue model for Sears Roebuck & Co. He began acting with the Black Friars theatre group, and was spotted by an RKO talent scout during his stint with the American-Irish Theatre. Under contract to RKO in 1943, Tierney started out in uncredited bit parts. His first credited role was a supporting one in Val Lewton’s YOUTH RUNS WILD. After this, the Kings Bros. borrowed him for a film they were making at Monogram, DILLINGER, a tale “written in bullets, blood and blondes.” The title role shot Tierney to stardom overnight. Even though it was made for poverty-row studio Monogram, it was a major success, reaping millions. It was the B outfit’s first attempt at a big-budgeted film sold on a percentage basis. The film’s success was a mixed blessing for Tierney. He was so awesome and authentic as the Depression-era gangster that the role stuck to him – on screen and off. Anne Jeffreys, who co-starred in DILLINGER, echoed many when she laughed recently, “Larry thought he was Dillinger.” (In fact, in real life, Tierney was arrested more times than the real John Dillinger, Public Enemy Number One.) On film, Tierney’s peak years were 1945 to 1948, a period when he was under contract to RKO and starring in his best movies. He made an impression in the classic noirs BORN TO KILL and THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE, portraying hard-core killers without consciences. When the role called for it, he could be a more-than-competent good guy, particularly in SAN QUENTIN, STEP BY STEP and BODYGUARD, but it was as the dangerous, psychopathic guy with a heart of stone that Tierney is remembered today. This was accentuated by his notorious private life, which was hyper-fueled by a volatile mix of alcohol and blind rage. Tierney’s run-ins with the law are legendary and have only added to his mystique and general awesomeness. Because he came across as the real article on screen, he was often challenged to fights off screen to prove how tough he really was. This, naturally, led to many real-life prison terms for him. Through his rough, hard-lived life, Tierney got into countless drunken brawls, was stabbed numerous times, broke a college student’s jaw, tore a public phone off a wall, rearranged a waiter’s face with a sugar bowl, tore off a friend’s neck brace and then threw a drink in his face, attempted to choke out a cab driver, assaulted a security guard who refused him admission to a private party Elizabeth Taylor was hosting for the Moiseyev dancers, and served time in jail. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The late ‘50s saw Tierney duking it out with two policemen outside a bar in New York City. In reporting the altercation, THE NEW YORK TIMES declared that he had been previously arrested six times in California and five in New York on similar charges. One of the strangest troubles he had came in the mid-1970s with the suicide of a lady friend who jumped from a window. Tierney, questioned by police, claimed that when he entered the woman’s apartment, she had “just went out the window” and that he hadn’t touched her. Naturally, all this notoriety took a toll on his career. By the early 1950s he was having difficulty getting work; the movie roles he did get tended to be of a supporting nature. He had an excellent acting chance in the low-budget noir THE HOODLUM, but, although it contained one of his best performances, it made no dent on his standing because of its limited release. He had a couple of opportunities to get his career back on track. Cecil B. DeMille took a liking to him when Tierney played a small part in THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH. The director urged Paramount to put Tierney under contract. The idea went up in flames when he was arrested in a barroom brawl. He was offered the role of Charlie “The Gent” Malloy in Elia Kazan’s classic ON THE WATERFRONT (1954). For some inexplicable reason, perhaps just an example of self-destructive behavior, he demanded more money. The offer was promptly revoked and Tierney lost out to Rod Steiger, who was subsequently Oscar-nominated. A fascinating acting role for him in the 1950s was in a touring version of THE PETRIFIED FOREST. Starring Franchot Tone and Betsy von Furstenberg, the show sounds like a Lawrence Tierney fan’s dream: He played Bogart’s original part of Duke Mantee. Television should have been a natural for him. While he did a good share of work in the medium, it was much less than someone of his obvious capabilities should have received. Starting in the early ‘50s and up until the 1990s, Tierney guested on THE MAN BEHIND THE BADGE, NAKED CITY, THE DETECTIVES STARRING ROBERT TAYLOR, MAN WITH A CAMERA, ADVENTURES IN PARADISE, PETER GUNN, THE BARBARA STANWYCK SHOW, FOLLOW THE SUN, BUS STOP, THE LLOYD BRIDGES SHOW, THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR, FAME, REMINGTON STEELE, TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, THE SLAP MAXWELL STORY, STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, HUNTER, SEINFELD, EQUAL JUSTICE, SILK STALKINGS, L.A. LAW, POINTMAN, THE SIMPSONS (voice), ER, EZ STREETS, and STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE. He was a regular on HILL STREET BLUES from 1985 to 1987. One memorable guest shot was on an episode of HUNTER in 1988, entitled “The Black Dahlia,” which centered on the infamous 1940s murder. Josh Weinstein, who worked behind the scenes on THE SIMPSONS, recalled Tierney’s 1995 work on that show, calling his appearance “the craziest guest star experience we ever had.” Reportedly, a temperamental Tierney yelled at and intimidated employees of the show. But, Weinstein added, “He certainly delivered and he’s one of my favorite characters we have had [on the show].” The television role everyone remembers, however, was his memorable turn on SEINFELD in 1990 playing Elaine’s intimidating father. The regular cast members all admitted that he scared the living crap out of them when the cameras weren’t rolling with his bizarre behavior. (Tierney had taken a butcher’s knife and hid it under his jacket. When confronted by Jerry Seinfeld, he claimed that it was for a prank that he was going to improvise on camera. He quickly surrendered the knife.) Tierney had given up drinking in 1982 following a stroke, confessing in 1987 that he “threw away about seven careers through drink.” His feature film roles were often small, in lackluster films, for the most part, during the 1960s onward. Two exceptions came in the 1980s: John Huston’s PRIZZI’S HONOR and Norman Mailer’s TOUGH GUYS DON’T DANCE. During the lean years when he was only getting sporadic screen jobs, Tierney worked as a bartender, construction worker and even drove a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park. (In 1984, he appeared in a series of Excedrin commercials playing a construction worker.) The film that heralded his “comeback” – and proved once and for all that Tierney was the man – was Quentin Tarantino’s RESERVOIR DOGS, playing gruff crime boss Joe Cabot. (Tarantino inserted an in-joke for Tierney, when he says that one of his henchmen is “dead as Dillinger.”) Unfortunately, RESERVOIR DOGS did not lead to better movies or roles, although he kept working. His last film was EVICTED, a movie produced, written, directed and starring his nephew Michael Tierney. Lawrence Tierney remained tough until the end. His agent Don Gerler later commented that “I was still bailing him out of jail. He was 75 years old and still the toughest guy in the bar!” Tierney died at the age of 82, of pneumonia, at a Los Angeles nursing home. On screen and off, no one could match Tierney’s killer edge. He was typecast because everything about him screamed that he was a don’t-mess-with-me bad-ass. His career was derailed by personal demons, but he continued to work almost up until the time he died. Anne Jeffreys, who complemented him well on screen in DILLINGER and STEP BY STEP, felt that Tierney could’ve been a bigger star and a better actor if he had taken it seriously. She thought he was a smart, well-read, and charming man when he was sober … but he rarely was. Still, we shouldn’t take for granted what Tierney did bring to the screen, especially in the few roles that showcased him. It is a testament to his overwhelming charisma that we still remember him fondly as one of the best of the bad guys. “You’re not a turnip, are you?” Claire Trevor approvingly remarks to him in BORN TO KILL. Nope, that Lawrence Tierney never was…

Lawrence Tierney in Born To Kill


GILDERSLEEVE ON BROADWAY (1943, uncredited), GOVERNMENT GIRL (1943, uncredited), THE GHOST SHIP (1943, uncredited), THE FALCON OUT WEST (1944, uncredited), SEVEN DAYS ASHORE (1944, uncredited), YOUTH RUNS WILD (1944), BIRTHDAY BLUES (1945, short), DILLINGER (1945), THOSE ENDEARING YOUNG CHARMS (1945), BACK TO BATAAN (1945), MAMA LOVES PAPA (1945), SING YOUR WAY HOME (1945, uncredited), BADMAN’S TERRITORY (1946, as Jesse James), STEP BY STEP (1946), SAN QUENTIN (1946), THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE (1947), BORN TO KILL (1947), BODYGUARD (1948), SHAKEDOWN (1950), THE HOODLUM (1951), BEST OF THE BADMEN (1951, as Jesse James), THE BUSHWHACKERS (1951), THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (1952), KILL OR BE KILLED (1952), THE STEEL CAGE (1954), FEMALE JUNGLE (1955), SINGING IN THE DARK (1956), A CHILD IS WAITING (1963), EXORCISM AT MIDNIGHT (1966, U.S. version only, released later), CUSTER OF THE WEST (1967), KILLER WITHOUT A FACE (1968), SUCH GOOD FRIENDS (1971), ABDUCTION (1975), BAD (1977), BLOODRAGE (1979), THE KIRLIAN WITNESS (1979), GLORIA (1980), ARTHUR (1981), THE PROWLER (1981), MIDNIGHT (1982), TERRIBLE JOE MORAN (1984, TVM), NOTHING LASTS FOREVER (1984), PRIZZI’S HONOR (1985), SILVER BULLET (1985), MURPHY’S LAW (1986), THE OFFSPRING (1987), TOUGH GUYS DON’T DANCE (1987), THE NAKED GUN: FROM THE FILES OF POLICE SQUAD! (1988), THE HORROR SHOW (1989), WHY ME? (1990), THE RUNESTONE (1991), THE DEATH MERCHANT (1991), DILLINGER (1991, TVM), WIZARDS OF THE DEMON SWORD (1991), CITY OF HOPE (1991), RESERVOIR DOGS (1992), EDDIE PRESLEY (1992), RED (1993, short), CASUALTIES OF LOVE: THE LONG ISLAND LOLITA STORY (1993, TVM), A KISS GOODNIGHT (1994, TVM), JUNIOR (1994), STARSTRUCK (1995), PORTRAIT IN RED (1995), WHO STOLE SANTA? (1996, video, voice), CHRISTMAS IN Oz (1996, video short, voice), 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY (1996), TOTO LOST IN NEW YORK (1996, video, voice), AMERICAN HERO (1997), SOUTHIE (1998), ARMAGEDDON (1998, uncredited), EVICTED (2000).

One thought on “Lawrence Tierney by Laura Wagner

  1. I’d like to thank Laura Wagner for writing this article…Lawrence Tierney was my favorite movie star…he was real…he was tough…he was human and humans have their problems…we all do…. I never met Mr Tierney..but i know his nephew Michael…who is a good guy and my friend…Well, that’s all i wanted to say..except
    “Good night Larry,” “We’re not going to forget you…”

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