Lawrence Tierney: Wikis


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Lawrence Tierney

Tierney in Born to Kill, 1947
Born March 15, 1919(1919-03-15)
Brooklyn, New York
Died February 26, 2002 (aged 82)
Los Angeles, California

Lawrence Tierney (March 15, 1919 – February 26, 2002) was an American actor, known for his many screen portrayals of mobsters and hardened criminals, which mirrored his own frequent brushes with the law.[1]

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."[2]


Early life

Tierney was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Mary and Lawrence Tierney, an Irish-American policeman.[3] Tierney was a star athlete at Boys High School in Brooklyn, where he won awards for track and field. He earned an athletic scholarship to Manhattan College, but quit after two years to work as a laborer on the New York Aqueduct. He traveled around the country, bouncing from job to job, and worked as catalogue model for Sears Roebuck & Co.[3] An acting coach suggested that he try the stage, and Tierney joined the Black Friars theatre group and later the American-Irish Theatre. He was spotted there by an RKO talent scout and given a film contract in 1943.[1][3]


Tierney's first major performance was in the title role in Dillinger (1945).

Early in his career, he 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) before starring in the title role in 1945's Dillinger. The role made him a star.[3]

Tierney played the famous 1930s bank robber John Dillinger, in a film that was advertised as a tale "written in bullets, blood and blondes." It was initially banned in Chicago and other cities where Dillinger had operated. Though a low-budget movie, with a budget of just $60,000, it proved popular, with Tierney "memorably menacing" in the title role, in the words of one recent commentator.[3]

RKO assigned him to other tough-guy characters. He played 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 role of Sam Wild in films that have since gained a cult following: the Robert Wise film Born to Kill and The Devil Thumbs a Ride, directed by Felix Feist, in which he played a vicious hitch-hiker.[3].

Writing in The New York Times, film critic Bosley Crowther condemned Born to Kill as "not only morally disgusting but is an offense to a normal intellect." He said that Tierney "as the bold, bad killer whose ambition is to 'fix it so's I can spit in anybody's eye,' is given outrageous license to demonstrate the histrionics of nastiness."[4] More recent critics and scholars have viewed the film as a significant film noir, and as an excellent example of RKO's approach to the genre.[5]

Tierney attacking Elisha Cook Jr. in the film noir Born to Kill (1947).

Tierney later said that he did not like playing violent roles:[3].

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 his parts grew smaller. He received fourth billing in Joseph Pevney's Shakedown (1950), and had a supporting role playing Jesse James, again, in Best of the Badmen (1951). He played a small role as the villain who caused a train wreck in Cecil B. DeMille's 1952 best-picture Oscar-winner, The Greatest Show on Earth. DeMille asked Paramount Pictures to put Tierney under contract, but the idea was dropped when he was arrested for fighting in a bar.[3]

Decline and comeback

He returned to the stage, playing the Humphrey Bogart role of Duke Mantee in a touring version of The Petrified Forest, alongside Franchot Tone and Betsy von Furstenburg.[3] Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he appeared in only bit parts in movies, his career damaged by his frequent brushes with the law.[1] Among his film roles was a small part in the John Cassavetes film A Child is Waiting (1963). He also made television appearances in shows such as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and moved to France for several years.[3]

He returned to New York City in the 1960s, and his troubles with the law continued. In New York, he worked as a bartender, construction worker and drove a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park. He occasionally found film work in Otto Preminger's Such Good Friends (1971) in which he had a bit part as a security guard. In 1976, he appeared in Andy Warhol's Bad, which he later described as "a terrible experience – unprofessional." He also had a small role in Cassavetes' Gloria (1980).[3]

In 1982, Tierney had a small speaking role as the chief of police of New York City in John Huston's film Prizzi's Honor. He returned to Hollywood in late 1983 and guest-starred on television shows such as Remington Steele, Fame, Hunter, Seinfeld, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and The Simpsons. Tierney made a number of appearances on Hill Street Blues and in fact uttered the last line of the last episode of the series. In 1984, he appeared in a national campaign of an Excedrin commercial playing a construction worker.

Tierney's career revived in the 1980s, and in 1992 he had a featured role in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs.

He had a more substantial supporting role in Norman Mailer's movie adaptation of his novel in Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987), playing the father of protagonist Ryan O'Neal. He also had a role in the film adaptation of Stephen King's Silver Bullet, in which he played a baseball bat-wielding bar owner.

In 1988, Tierney played the role of a tough holodeck gangster in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In 1991, Quentin Tarantino cast him as Joe Cabot in the film Reservoir Dogs. The success of the film put bookends on his career as a gangster actor. During the film, Cabot reports that one of his henchmen was "dead as Dillinger"[6] - a line inserted by Tarantino as an "in-joke" and reference to Tierney's first major film role. During the production of Reservoir Dogs, Tierney's off screen antics both amused and disturbed the cast and crew. Tarantino later said that he almost got in a fight with Tierney during the filming.

One of his last film roles was as an appearance as Bruce Willis' father in Armageddon (1998). His agent Don Gerler later commented that "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!"[3]

Off-screen troubles

Tierney had numerous arrests for drunken fights over the years, and served jail terms. His run-ins with the law took a toll on his career.[1] He was an admitted alcoholic who gave up drinking in 1982 after having a stroke, and once said that he "threw away about seven careers through drink."[3]

Between 1944 and 1951, Tierney had been arrested a dozen times for brawling, frequently for drunkenness.[7] His legal troubles included a 90-day jail sentence for breaking a college student's jaw.[8]

At the time of his arrest for brawling with two policemen outside a Manhattan bar in 1958, the New York Times reported that he had been arrested six times in California and five times in New York on similar charges.[9] In 1973 he was stabbed in a bar fight on the west side of Manhattan.[10]

In June 1975, Tierney was questioned by New York City police in connection with the apparent suicide of a 24-year old woman, who jumped from the window of her apartment. Tierney told police that he had come to visit the woman, "had just gotten there, and she just went out the window".[3]

When he guest-starred on Seinfeld (1990) in "The Jacket" episode as Elaine's father, Alton Benes, he scared the cast so badly that they never had him back on. He stole a butcher knife from the set and hid it under his jacket. When Jerry Seinfeld confronted him about it (much to the dismay of the entire cast), Tierney made a joking stabbing motion towards him as in reference to the movie Psycho.[11] Writer Larry David said that Tierney returned to the show's offices about a week after shooting on the episode had wrapped, late on a Saturday night; although uncertain of his motive, David speculated that he was "looking for a sandwich or something."[12]

Personal life

Tierney's brother was actor Scott Brady. His nephew is film director and actor Michael Tierney. On February 26, 2002, Tierney died at the age of 82 of pneumonia at a Los Angeles nursing home.[13] He left three children,[3] including a daughter, Elizabeth Tierney, of Park City, Utah.[1]



  1. ^ a b c d e "Lawrence Tierney, 82, Actor Known for Tough-Guy Roles". The New York Times. March 2, 2002. Retrieved 2009-01-19. 
  2. ^ Kehr, David (5 July 2005). "Critic's Choice: New DVD's". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-01-19. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Vallance, Tom (2002-03-01). "Lawrence Tierney (obituary)". The Independent. Retrieved 2009-04-04. 
  4. ^ Crowther, Bosley (May 1, 1947). "Review of Born to Kill". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-04-04. 
  5. ^ Silver, Alain; Ward, Elizabeth; Ursini, James (1992). Film noir: an encyclopedic reference to the American style. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press. pp. 40. ISBN 0-87951-479-5. 
  6. ^ Lawrence Tierney | News | Guardian Unlimited Film
  7. ^ "Actor Held After Afray". The New York Times. 9 October 1951. 
  8. ^ United Press (30 August 1951). "Screen Villain Draws 90 Days". The New York Times. 
  9. ^ "Tierney Arrested Here". The New York Times. 15 October 1958. 
  10. ^ "Lawrence Tierney Stabbed in West Side Altercation". The New York Times. 1973-01-19. 
  11. ^ Jerry's gang is back: First three seasons of 'Seinfeld' arrive on DVD
  12. ^
  13. ^ "Obituary". Associated Press. 3-2-2002. Retrieved 2009-01-26. 

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