- Category : Actor
- Type : MGE
- Profile : 2/4 - Hermit / Opportunist
- Definition : Split - Small (41,55,59)
- Incarnation Cross : RAX Eden 1
Lawrence Tierney (March 15, 1919 – February 26, 2002) was an American actor known for his many screen portrayals of mobsters and tough guys, roles which mirrored his own frequent brushes with the law.
Commenting on the DVD release of a Tierney film in 2005, a New York Times critic observed, "The hulking Tierney was not so much an actor as a frightening force of nature."
Tierney was born in Brooklyn, New York, son of Mary and Lawrence Tierney, an Irish-American policeman. He was a star athlete at Boys High School, winning awards for track and field and joining Omega Gamma Delta fraternity. He earned an athletic scholarship to Manhattan College but quit after two years to work as a laborer on the New York Acqueduct. He bounced around the country from job to job, working for a time as a catalogue model for Sears Roebuck & Co. After an acting coach suggested he try the stage Tierney joined the Black Friars theatre group, moving on to the American-Irish Theatre. He was spotted there in 1943 by an RKO talent scout and given a film contract.
Early in his career Tierney appeared in supporting roles in B movies, including The Ghost Ship (1943), The Falcon Out West (1944), Youth Runs Wild (1944) and Back to Bataan (1945). His breakthrough was starring as famous 1930s bank robber John Dillinger in 1945's Dillinger.
Advertised as a tale "written in bullets, blood and blondes," Dillinger was initially banned in Chicago and other cities where the felon had operated. A low-budget film costing just $60,000 to make, Dillinger nevertheless proved popular, with Tierney being described as "memorably menacing" in the title role.
RKO assigned him other tough-guy roles, including 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 played the lead in two films which have since gained cult followings, a suave but murderous conman in Robert Wise's Born to Kill and a homocidal hitch-hiker in Felix E. Feist's The Devil Thumbs a Ride.
The New York Times' film critic Bosley Crowther condemned Born to Kill as "not only morally disgusting but an offense to a normal intellect." He decried Tierney "as the bold, bad killer whose ambition is to 'fix it so's I can spit in anybody's eye,'" being "given outrageous license to demonstrate the histrionics of nastiness." More recent critics and scholars have viewed the film as a significant film noir and excellent example of RKO's approach to the genre.
Tierney later maintained he did not like playing violent roles:
“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.”
Tierney had a more sympathetic role as a man wrongly convicted of murder in Richard Fleischer's Bodyguard (1948), but by the 1950s his well-publicized off-screen brawls began to hurt his career and diminish his parts. He received fourth billing in Joseph Pevney's Shakedown (1950), and had a supporting role reprising Jesse James in Best of the Badmen (1951). A turn as the villain who caused a train wreck in Cecil B. DeMille's 1952 best-picture Oscar-winner, The Greatest Show on Earth earned a request by the director of Paramount Pictures to put Tierney under contract, but the idea was dropped when the actor was arrested for fighting in a bar.
Decline and comeback
As film offers dried up Tierney returned to the stage, playing Duke Mantee in a touring version of The Petrified Forest alongside Franchot Tone and Betsy von Furstenburg. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s he appeared in only bit parts in movies, fallout from continued brushes with the law. Among his film roles was a small part in John Cassavetes' A Child is Waiting (1963). He made television appearances in such shows as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
After several years in France Tierney returned to New York City in the late 1950s, his troubles with the law continuing. In New York, he worked as a bartender, construction worker, and drove a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park. He occasionally found film work, appearing in a bit part as a security guard in Otto Preminger's Such Good Friends (1971), in Andy Warhol's Bad in 1976 (which he later described as "a terrible experience – unprofessional"), and in a small role in Cassavetes' Gloria (1980).
Tierney returned to Hollywood in late 1983 and guest-starred on television shows over the next dozen years such as Remington Steele, Fame, Hunter, Seinfeld, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and The Simpsons. In 1984, he appeared in a national campaign of an Excedrin commercial playing a construction worker. In 1985 he had a small speaking role as the chief of police of New York City in John Huston's feature Prizzi's Honor. Tierney made a number of appearances as the desk sergeant on the night shift on Hill Street Blues, uttering the last line of the series' final episode when he answered the station house's front desk phone, "Hill Street Station".
Tierney had a more substantial supporting role as the father of protagonist Ryan O'Neal in Norman Mailer's movie adaptation of his own novel Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987). He also played a baseball bat-wielding bar owner in the film adaptation of Stephen King's Silver Bullet.
In 1988, Tierney played a tough holodeck gangster in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and in 1990 had a memorable turn as Elaine Benes's father Alton Benes in the Seinfeld episode "The Jacket". In 1991, Quentin Tarantino cast him as crime lord Joe Cabot in Reservoir Dogs, the success of which bookended his career playing gangsters. In an homage to his first starring role Tierney (as Cabot) reports that one of his henchmen was "dead as Dillinger". During production Tierney's off-screen antics both amused and disturbed cast and crew, Tarantino later claiming he almost got into a fistfight with the septuagenarian at one point.
One of Tierney's last roles was as a cameo as Bruce Willis' father in Armageddon (1998). His agent Don Gerler later recounted "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!"
Tierney's numerous arrests for being drunk and disorderly and jail terms for assault of civilians and lawmen alike took a toll on his career. He was an admitted alcoholic who went sober in 1982 after having a mild stroke, once observing he "threw away about seven careers through drink."
In just seven years between 1944 and 1951 Tierney was arrested a dozen times for brawling, frequently for drunkenness. His legal troubles included a 90-day sentence for breaking a college student's jaw. At the time of a 1958 arrest for fighting two policemen outside a Manhattan bar the New York Times reported he had been arrested six times in California and five in New York on similar charges. In 1973 he was stabbed in a bar fight on the West Side of Manhattan.
In June 1975, Tierney was questioned by New York City police in connection with the apparent suicide of a 24-year old woman who had jumped from the window of her apartment. Tierney told police he'd come to visit the woman, "had just gotten there, and she just went out the window".
Tierney died of pneumonia at age 82 at a Los Angeles nursing home on February 26, 2002. He left three children, including a daughter, Elizabeth Tierney, of Park City, Utah.
Tierney's younger brothers were actors Scott Brady, star of the 1959-1961 syndicated western series Shotgun Slade, and Edward Tierney, who subsequently left acting for the construction business. His nephew is film director and actor Michael Tierney.