Lawrence James Tierney
March 15, 1919
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
|Died||February 26, 2002 (aged 82)|
Los Angeles, U.S.
Lawrence James Tierney (March 15, 1919 – February 26, 2002) was an American film and television actor who is best known for his many screen portrayals of mobsters and tough guys, roles that mirrored his own frequent brushes with the law. In 2005, film critic David Kehr of The New York Times described "the hulking Tierney" as "not so much an actor as a frightening force of nature".
Lawrence James Tierney was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Mary Alice (née Crowley) (1895-1960) and Lawrence Hugh Tierney (1891-1964). His father was an Irish-American policeman with the New York aqueduct police force. Tierney 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 temporarily as a laborer constructing a section of the 85-mile-long Delaware Aqueduct, which supplies nearly half of New York City's water supply. He then bounced around the country from job to job, working for a time as a catalogue model for Sears Roebuck & Company.
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. In 1943 and 1944, Tierney was cast in several uncredited roles in RKO releases such as Gildersleeve on Broadway, Government Girl, The Ghost Ship for producer Val Lewton, The Falcon Out West, Seven Days Ashore, and Youth Runs Wild, also for Lewton.
Dillinger and stardom
Tierney's breakthrough role was starring as famous 1930s bank robber John Dillinger in 1945's Dillinger, made for the King Brothers and Monogram Pictures, which borrowed him from RKO. Advertised as a tale "written in bullets, blood, and blondes", Dillinger was initially banned from theaters in Chicago and other cities where the gangster had operated. A low-budget production that cost $60,000 to make, Dillinger nevertheless proved popular, with Tierney being characterized as "memorably menacing".
Back at RKO, Tierney resumed his work there in small and supporting roles in Those Endearing Young Charms (1945), Back to Bataan (1945) (with John Wayne in one scene), Mama Loves Papa (1946), and in the Western Badman's Territory (1946) in which he portrays Jesse James. However, as ticket sales for Dillinger continued to rise and that film's financial success became apparent at RKO, the studio promoted Tierney in 1946 to star status in Step by Step, another film noir, one that portrays an ex-Marine being falsely accused of murder. He next starred as a reformed prison inmate in the 1946 release San Quentin.
The next year he was cast as the lead in two more RKO productions that have since gained cult followings among film noir enthusiasts: The Devil Thumbs a Ride directed by Felix E. Feist and the more notorious Born to Kill directed by Robert Wise. In Feist's film, Tierney plays a homicidal hitch-hiker, while under Wise's direction he portrays a suave but murderous conman. Film critic Bosley Crowther of The New York Times condemned Born to Kill upon its release in 1947, professing that it was "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." Despite such negative contemporary reviews of the film, more recent critics and film historians have expressed admiration for Tierney's intense performance and identified the production as a quintessential example of film noir, in particular of RKO's approach to the genre.
Yet, in reflecting on his career, Tierney himself maintained he did not like playing such 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.
Following Born to Kill, Tierney was periodically cast in more sympathetic roles. In RKO's 1948 release Bodyguard, based on a story co-written by Robert Altman and George W. George, he plays a man wrongly accused of murder. That year RKO also announced its intentions to star him in The Clay Pigeon, but Bill Williams was instead assigned the leading role.
In 1950, Tierney was cast by Eagle-Lion Films to star in Kill or Be Killed, directed by Max Nosseck, who had also directed Dillinger. That same year, however, Tierney only received second billing in Joseph Pevney's Shakedown, although in 1951 he returned to a starring role in another film produced by Eagle Lion and directed by Nosseck: The Hoodlum. He then returned to RKO to play a supporting role, performing again as Jesse James in Best of the Badmen (1951). After co-starring in The Bushwhackers (1952), director Cecil B. DeMille cast him as the villain who causes a train wreck in the 1952 Best Picture Oscar-winner The Greatest Show on Earth. Tierney's supporting work in that film earned him a request by the director of Paramount Pictures to put him under contract, but that proposal was dropped by the studio when the actor was arrested for fighting in a bar.
Additional supporting roles and return to the stage
For the remainder of the 1950s, Tierney continued to work in supporting roles in The Man Behind the Badge, The Steel Cage (1954), and Singing in the Dark (1956). He did share top billing with Kathleen Crowley, John Carradine, and Jayne Mansfield in the low-budget film noir Female Jungle (1956), but as offers of further screen work steadily declined, he returned to the stage, playing Duke Mantee in a touring version of The Petrified Forest alongside Franchot Tone and Betsy von Furstenberg. 
During the 1950s and 1960s, Tierney also had guest roles in many television series, including Naked City, The Detectives, New York Confidential, Man with a Camera, Adventures in Paradise, Peter Gunn, The Barbara Stanwyck Show, Follow the Sun, Bus Stop, The Lloyd Bridges Show, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
Among his film roles were parts in John Cassavetes' A Child Is Waiting (1963), Naked Evil (1966), Custer of the West (1967), and Killer Without a Face (1968). After Child is Waiting he moved to France. After several years of living in France, Tierney returned to New York City, but his troubles with the law continued. In New York City, he worked as a bartender and construction worker, and drove a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park.
According to the book The Films of John Avildsen: Rocky, The Karate Kid and Other Underdogs, Tierney was supposed to have played the role of Joe Curran in Avildsen's 1970 hit Joe but due to an incident two days before principal photography had begun, when he was arrested for assaulting a bartender who refused to serve him any more liquor, he was fired.
During the 1970s, he occasionally found film work, appearing in a bit part as a security guard in Otto Preminger's Such Good Friends (1971), as an FBI agent in Joseph Zito's Abduction (1975), in Andy Warhol's Bad in 1976 (which he later described as "a terrible experience—unprofessional"), as well as small roles in Cassavetes' Gloria (1980) and Zito's The Prowler (1981). He was also in The Kirlian Witness (1980), Bloodrage (1980), and Arthur (1981). He was billed second in Midnight (1982).
Return to Hollywood
Tierney returned to Hollywood in December 1983, and over the next 16 years, resumed a fairly successful acting career in film and television. He guest-starred on a number of television shows such as Remington Steele, Fame, Hunter, L.A. Law, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and The Simpsons, where former show runner Josh Weinstein called Tierney's appearance "the craziest guest star experience we ever had".
In 1984, Tierney appeared as part of a national campaign in an Excedrin TV commercial playing a construction worker. In 1985, he had a small speaking role as the chief of the New York City police in John Huston's Prizzi's Honor. Then between 1985 to 1987, Tierney made several guest appearances on the last two seasons of the police drama Hill Street Blues, portraying Desk Sergeant Jenkins working the precinct's night shifts. In fact, he spoke the last line of dialogue on the series' final episode when he answered the front desk phone, uttering "Hill Street."
Tierney had a more substantial supporting role as the father of protagonist Ryan O'Neal in Norman Mailer's film 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. Tierney credited Tough Guys Don't Dance in particular with rejuvenating his acting career and he personally ranked it as some of his best work. In 1988, Tierney played Cyrus Redblock, a tough holodeck gangster in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Big Goodbye". Then, in February 1991, he guest-starred as Elaine Benes's gruff father Alton Benes in the Seinfeld episode "The Jacket". His performance was described as brilliant, and the series' producers contemplated making him a recurring character, but a disturbing incident during production scuttled any such plans. According to the show‘s principal cast members, Tierney was caught stealing a knife from a service table on set and hiding it under a trench coat lying over his shoulder. When Jerry Seinfeld confronted him about the theft, Tierney reportedly gestured with the knife toward the star in simulated but threatening manner. Such behavior made it clear to cast and crew that the veteran actor would not be invited back to reprise the role.
In 1991, Quentin Tarantino cast him in a supporting role as crime lord Joe Cabot in Reservoir Dogs. The success of the film bookended Tierney's career in playing gangsters. In an homage to his first starring role, Tierney reports that one of his henchmen was "dead as Dillinger". During production, Tierney's off-screen antics both amused and disturbed the cast and crew. Tarantino later referred to Tierney as "a complete lunatic" who "just needed to be sedated", observed him to be "personally challenging to every aspect of film-making", and said that at the end of his first week of directing Reservoir Dogs they "had a blow out and got into a fist fight".
Despite his reputation as a brawler and being difficult to work with, Tierney remained in steady demand as a character actor in Hollywood until he suffered a mild stroke in 1995 which made him gradually slow his career (he had suffered a previous stroke in 1982). He turned to doing voice-over work on animated features and made occasional appearances in film and television (most of which feature him only sitting) as his health slowly deteriorated until his death. One of Tierney's later roles was an uncredited cameo appearance as Bruce Willis' invalid father in Armageddon (1998) in a short scene which ended up being deleted from the theatrical release version. The same year, his long-time agent, Don Gerler, recounted Tierney's continuing troubles with the law: "A few years back [in 1994] I was still bailing him out of jail. He was 75 years old and still the toughest guy in the bar!" His final acting role was a small part in the 1999 independent film Evicted, written and directed by his nephew Michael Tierney, after which Lawrence Tierney, then age 80, retired from acting altogether.
Tierney's numerous arrests for being drunk and disorderly and jail terms for assault on civilians and lawmen alike took a toll on his career. He was an admitted alcoholic who tried to go sober in 1982 after having a mild stroke, once observing during a 1987 interview that he "threw away about seven careers through drink".
Between 1944 and 1951, Tierney was arrested over 12 times for brawling, frequently for drunkenness. He was jailed for brawling in May 1947 and again in January 1949 and drunkenness in 1949 and 1950. His legal troubles included a 90-day jail sentence he served from August to November 1951 for breaking a New York college student's jaw. That year, he was sent to a mental hospital after being found disheveled in a church. He was arrested for assault and battery in 1953 and again in October 1958 for resisting arrest and assaulting two police officers. At the time of his 1958 arrest outside a Manhattan bar, The New York Times reported that he had been arrested six times in California and five in New York City on similar charges.
In January 1973, he was stabbed in a bar fight on the West Side of Manhattan. Two years later, 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 high-rise apartment. Tierney told police "I had just gotten there, and she just went out the window." He never was arrested or charged with the young woman's death. The apparent suicide closely resembles the death of Rosa, played by Allene Roberts in the 1951 film The Hoodlum. Tierney’s Vincent Lubeck, the hoodlum of the title, is suspected of driving Rosa into throwing herself off a roof shortly after talking to Lubeck.
During the filming of Reservoir Dogs, Tierney shot at his nephew in a drunken rage, and was arrested and bailed. He was released for a day from the jail to continue filming, as recounted by the film's director Quentin Tarantino in an interview. As a result, Tarantino never again worked with or hired Tierney to act in his films.
Personal life and death
With much of his career and personal life repeatedly embroiled in legal problems and hampered by chronic alcohol abuse, Tierney elected to never marry. He did, though, father one child, Elizabeth Tierney of Park City, Utah.
Both of Tierney's younger brothers preceded him in death, Edward dying in 1983 and Gerard (actor Scott Brady) in 1985. On February 26, 2002, at age 82, Lawrence Tierney died in his sleep of pneumonia in a Los Angeles nursing home, where he had been residing for nearly two years.
- Gildersleeve on Broadway (1943) as Cab Driver (uncredited)
- Government Girl (1943) as FBI Man (uncredited)
- The Ghost Ship (1943) as Seaman Louie Parker (uncredited)
- The Falcon Out West (1944) as Orchestra Leader (uncredited)
- Seven Days Ashore (1944) as Crewman (uncredited)
- Youth Runs Wild (1944) as Larry Duncan
- Dillinger (1945) as John Dillinger
- Those Endearing Young Charms (1945) as Lt. Ted Brewster
- Back to Bataan (1945) as Lt. Cmdr. Waite
- Mama Loves Papa (1945) as Sharpe
- Sing Your Way Home (1945) as Reporter in Paris (uncredited)
- Badman's Territory (1946) as Jesse James
- Step By Step (1946) as Johnny Christopher
- San Quentin (1946) as Jim Roland
- The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947) as Steve Morgan
- Born to Kill (1947) as Sam
- Bodyguard (1948) as Mike Carter
- Kill or Be Killed (1950) as Robert Warren
- Shakedown (1950) as Harry Colton
- The Hoodlum (1951) as Vincent Lubeck
- Best of the Badmen (1951) as Jesse James
- The Bushwackers (1951) as Sam Tobin
- The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) as Mr. Henderson
- The Steel Cage (1954) as Chet Harmon, a Ringleader (segment "The Hostages")
- Female Jungle (1956) as Det. Sgt. Jack Stevens
- Singing in the Dark (1956) as Biff Lamont
- A Child Is Waiting (1963) as Douglas Benham
- Naked Evil (1966) as The Doctor (U.S. version)
- Custer of the West (1967) as Gen. Philip Sheridan
- Killer Without a Face (1968)
- Such Good Friends (1971) as Hospital Guard
- Abduction (1975) as FBI Agent I
- Andy Warhol's Bad (1977) as O'Reilly-O'Crapface
- The Kirlian Witness (1979) as Detective
- Bloodrage (1980) as Malone
- Gloria (1980) as Broadway Bartender
- Arthur (1981) as Man in Coffee Shop
- The Prowler (1981) as Maj. Chatham
- Midnight (1982) as Bert Johnson
- Terrible Joe Moran (1984) as Pico
- Nothing Lasts Forever (1984) as Carriage Driver
- Prizzi's Honor (1985) as Lt. Hanley
- Silver Bullet (1985) as Owen Knopfler
- Murphy's Law (1986) as Cameron
- From a Whisper to a Scream (1987) as Warden
- Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987) as Dougy Madden
- The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988) as Angel Manager
- House III: The Horror Show (1989) as Warden
- Why Me? (1990) as Armenian Robber #1
- Dillinger (1991) as Sheriff Sarber
- Wizards of the Demon Sword (1991) as Slave Master
- The Runestone (1991) as Chief Richardson
- City of Hope (1991) as Kerrigan
- The Death Merchant (1991) as Ivan Yates
- Reservoir Dogs (1992) as Joe Cabot
- Eddie Presley (1992) as Joe West
- Junior (1994) as Mover
- Starstruck (1995) as Patron
- Fatal Passion (1995) as Robert Pearlman
- 2 Days in the Valley (1996) as Older Man
- American Hero (1997) as Captain Roads
- Southie (1998) as Colie Powers
- Armageddon (1998) as Eddie "Gramp" Stamper (uncredited)
- Evicted (1999) as Bob (final film role)
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- "STAR OF 'DILLINGER' GETS JAMES ROLE: Lawrence Tierney Listed for 'Bad Man's Territory'--New Mexican Film at Belmont Of Local Origin". New York Times. Sep 15, 1945. p. 21.
- Schallert, Edwin (May 3, 1945). "'Dillinger' Tierney Gets R.K.O. Stardom Nod". Los Angeles Times. p. A3.
- Crowther, Bosley (May 1, 1947). "Review of Born to Kill". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-04-04.
- Silver, Alain; Ward, Elizabeth; Ursini, James (1992). Film noir: an encyclopedic reference to the American style. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press. p. 40. ISBN 0-87951-479-5.
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- "Lawrence Tierney, 82, Actor Known for Tough-Guy Roles: [Obituary (Obit)]". New York Times. Mar 2, 2002. p. A.16.
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- "Lawrence Tierney: Tough Guy Actor", obituary, Variety (Los Angeles, California), March 11-17, 2002, p. 51.
- Garrett, Tom & Larry Powell. The Films of John Avildsen: Rocky, The Karate Kid and Other Underdogs, McFarland, 2013, ISBN 9780786466924
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- Seinfeld (Season 02, Episode 04), minute 10:18 onward.
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- "Actor Held After Afray". The New York Times. 9 October 1951.
- "Tierney Fights Brother; Gets 90 Days in Jail". Los Angeles Times. May 2, 1947. p. 2.
- "Lawrence Tierney Jailed in Brawl". Los Angeles Times. June 10, 1949. p. 15.
- "Lawrence Tierney, Screen Dillinger, Booked as Drunk". Los Angeles Times. Jan 4, 1949. p. 2.
- "LAWRENCE TIERNEY CITED ON DRUNK CHARGE". Los Angeles Times. Oct 15, 1950. p. B3.
- "Screen Villain Draws 90 Days". The New York Times. United Press. 30 August 1951. p. 11. Retrieved 2018-03-02.
- "Lawrence Tierney Is Jailed". New York Times. Aug 4, 1951. p. 7.
- "Free Lawrence Tierney After Serving 66 Days". Chicago Daily Tribune. May 13, 1952. p. a7.
- "Lawrence Tierney Taken to Neurological Hospital". Chicago Daily Tribune. Oct 9, 1951. p. 7.
- "LAWRENCE TIERNEY FREED: Court Decides Actor Didn't Hit Pianist with Microphone". New York Times. Aug 18, 1953. p. 48.
- "Tierney Arrested Here". The New York Times. 15 October 1958. p. 46. Retrieved 2018-03-02.
- McLellan, Dennis (2002-02-28). "Lawrence Tierney, 82; Actor Was Real-Life Tough Guy". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2018-03-02.
- "Movies With Ali Plumb – Movies That Made Me: Quentin Tarantino" – via www.bbc.co.uk.
- "Obituary". Associated Press. 2002-03-02. Retrieved 2009-01-26.
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