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Lawrence Tierney

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Lawrence Tierney
Tierney in the trailer for Dillinger (1945), his first starring role
Lawrence James Tierney

(1919-03-15)March 15, 1919
DiedFebruary 26, 2002(2002-02-26) (aged 82)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Years active1943–1999
RelativesScott Brady (brother)

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" in a career that spanned over fifty years. His roles mirrored his own frequent brushes with the law.[1] 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".[2]

Early life[edit]

Lawrence James Tierney was born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn on March 15, 1919, the son of Mary Alice (née Crowley; 1895–1960) and Lawrence Hugh Tierney (1891–1964).[3] His father was an Irish-American policeman with the New York aqueduct police force.[3] Tierney was a star athlete at Boys' High School, winning awards for track and field and joining Omega Gamma Delta fraternity.[4]

After graduating from high school, 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 drifted around the country from job to job, working for a time as a catalogue model for Sears Roebuck & Company.[3]


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 to work in Hollywood, California.[1][3] 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.[5]

Dillinger and stardom[edit]

Tierney's breakthrough role was starring as 1930s bank robber John Dillinger in 1945's Dillinger, made for the King Brothers and Monogram Pictures, which borrowed him from RKO.[3] 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—equivalent to $1,015,000 in 2023—Dillinger nevertheless proved popular, with Tierney being characterized as "memorably menacing".[3][6][7]

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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[3] 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 that Tierney, "as the bold, bad killer whose ambition is to 'fix it so's I can spit in anybody's eye,'" was "given outrageous license to demonstrate the histrionics of nastiness."[10] 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.[11]

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

Reflecting on his career, Tierney maintained that 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.[3]

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.[12][13]


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 Tierney was arrested for fighting in a bar.[3]

Additional supporting roles and return to the stage[edit]

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.[3][14]


During the 1950s and 1960s, Tierney 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.[15] 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 his work on A Child is Waiting he moved to France.[16] After several years there,[3] Tierney returned to New York City, but his troubles with the law resumed. In New York City, he worked as a bartender and construction worker, and drove a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park.[17]


According to the book The Films of John Avildsen: Rocky, The Karate Kid and Other Underdogs,[18] Tierney was supposed to play the role of Joe Curran in Avildsen's 1970 hit Joe. However, he was fired due to an incident two days before principal photography began when he was arrested for assaulting a bartender who refused to serve him any more hard liquor.

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).[3] He was also in The Kirlian Witness (1980), Bloodrage (1980), and Arthur (1981). He was second billed in the independently produced horror film Midnight (1982).

Return to Hollywood[edit]

Tierney moved back to Los Angeles in December 1983, and over the next 16 years, resumed a fairly successful acting career in film and television. He guest-starred on several television shows such as Remington Steele, Fame, Hunter, Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and The Simpsons. Former Simpson's show runner Josh Weinstein called Tierney's appearance "the craziest guest star experience we ever had".[19][20]

In 1985, Tierney had a small speaking role as the chief of the New York City police in John Huston's Prizzi's Honor. Between 1985 and 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. 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.[21] In 1988, Tierney played Cyrus Redblock, a tough holodeck gangster in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Big Goodbye". In February 1991, he guest-starred as Elaine Benes's gruff father Alton Benes in the Seinfeld episode "The Jacket".

Reservoir Dogs and later career[edit]

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".[22] During production, Tierney's off-screen antics both amused and disturbed the cast and crew. At the end of his first week of directing Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino got into a shoving match with Tierney and fired him. The entire crew burst into applause.[23] He later referred to Tierney as "a complete lunatic" who "just needed to be sedated".[24] Tierney’s co-star Harvey Keitel later spoke with Tierney, Tarantino and the studio executives, allowing things to be smoothed out and the filming completed.[23] Tierney later apologized to Tarantino and invited him to drink at a bar. Tarantino accepted his apology but declined to drink with Tierney, and vowed to never work with him again.[25]

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' disabled father in Armageddon (1998) in a short scene which ended up being deleted from the theatrical 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!"[3] 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.

Off-screen troubles[edit]

Tierney's numerous arrests for being drunk and disorderly, and jail terms for assault on civilians and police officers alike, took a toll on his career.[1] 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".[21]

Between 1944 and 1951, Tierney was arrested at least twelve times in Los Angeles for brawling—fistfighting with multiple people—and frequently for drunkenness which included ripping a public telephone off a wall in a bar, hitting a waiter in the face with a sugar bowl for refusing to serve him any more drinks, and attempting to choke a taxi driver.[26] He was jailed for three months for brawling in May 1947[27] and again in June 1949[28] and drunkenness in January 1949[29] and October 1950.[30] His legal troubles included a 90-day jail sentence which he served from August to October 1951 for breaking a New York college student's jaw during another barroom brawl. He served 66 days in the city jail in Chicago, Illinois from March to May 1952 on drunk and disorderly charges.[31][32][33] In October 1951, he was sent to a mental hospital in Chicago after being found in a church in a disheveled state.[34] In New York City, he was arrested for assault and battery of a barroom pianist in August 1953, and in October 1958 for resisting arrest and assaulting two police officers in another barroom brawl.[35][36] At the time of his October 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.[36]

In January 1973, he was stabbed in a bar fight on the West Side of Manhattan.[37] 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 was never arrested or charged with the young woman's death.[3]

In July 1991, during the filming of Reservoir Dogs, Tierney shot at his nephew in a drunken rage at his Hollywood apartment, and was arrested and jailed. He was released for one day to continue filming, as recounted by the film's director Quentin Tarantino in an interview. Tarantino never again worked with or hired Tierney to act in his films.[38]

Tierney’s Reservoir Dogs co-star Chris Penn recounted an incident in which Tierney stole a lamp for no apparent reason and showed it off to Penn while the two drove in Penn’s car.[39]

Wil Wheaton recalled that while filming Star Trek: The Next Generation, Tierney mocked the 15-year-old Wheaton for not playing sports and belittled him with homophobic slurs.[40]

The Simpsons showrunners and writers Josh Weinstein and Bill Oakley stated on Twitter numerous incidents regarding Tierney’s voice recording session for the show, including threatening and bullying the writers and staff, sexually harassing a female casting director and making strange demands for his role, such as insisting he voice the entire performance with a Southern accent.[41]

During the filming of Seinfeld, Jason Alexander and Jerry Seinfeld caught Tierney in the act of stealing knives from the set. When Seinfeld confronted him, Tierney began to laugh nervously and jokingly pretended to stab Seinfeld while imitating the music from the film Psycho. The entire crew was uncomfortable with Tierney following the incident, prompting Seinfeld to not hire Tierney again.[42] Julia Louis-Dreyfus complimented Tierney’s performance on the show but stated he was a “total nutjob.”[43]

Personal life and death[edit]

With much of his career and personal life repeatedly embroiled in legal problems and hampered by chronic alcoholism, Tierney elected to never marry despite having several short-term relationships with a number of women in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. He did, however, father a daughter named Elizabeth who was born in 1961.[1][3][44]

Both of Tierney's younger brothers preceded him in death, Edward dying in 1983 and Gerard (actor Scott Brady) in 1985. Tierney died on February 26, 2002, at age 82, in his sleep of pneumonia in a Los Angeles nursing home. He had been residing there for about a year after suffering another debilitating stroke.[45]


The first biography of the actor, Lawrence Tierney: Hollywood's Real-Life Tough Guy, was written by Burt Kearns and published on December 6, 2022, by the University Press of Kentucky.[46][47][48]

Selected filmography[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "Lawrence Tierney, 82, Actor Known for Tough-Guy Roles". The New York Times. March 2, 2002. Retrieved January 19, 2009.
  2. ^ Kehr, David (July 5, 2005). "Critic's Choice: New DVD's". The New York Times. Retrieved January 19, 2009.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Vallance, Tom (March 1, 2002). "Lawrence Tierney (obituary)". The Independent. London. Retrieved September 23, 2018.
  4. ^ "Lawrence Tierney". The Guardian. London. March 1, 2002. p. 26.
  5. ^ "Of Local Origin". New York Times. November 19, 1943. p. 25.
  6. ^ McGilligan, Patrick. Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1991. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft0z09n7m0/
  7. ^ Schallert, Edwin (October 4, 1944). "Mexican Best Seller Cugat Screen Subject: Lawrence Tierney Will Play Dillinger; Bickford Likely 'Doorbells' Costar". Los Angeles Times. p. 11.
  8. ^ "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. September 15, 1945. p. 21.
  9. ^ Schallert, Edwin (May 3, 1945). "'Dillinger' Tierney Gets R.K.O. Stardom Nod". Los Angeles Times. p. A3.
  10. ^ Crowther, Bosley (May 1, 1947). "Review of Born to Kill". The New York Times. Retrieved April 4, 2009.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ Schallert, Edwin (March 19, 1948). "Lawrence Tierney's Career to Bloom Anew". Los Angeles Times. p. 19.
  13. ^ THOMAS F. BRADY (June 18, 1948). "LEATRICE JOY SIGNS FOR ROLE IN MOVIE: Star of Silent Screen Will Play Grandmother in Film Planned by Eagle-Lion". New York Times. p. 18.
  14. ^ Gary A. Smith, American International Pictures: The Golden Years, Bear Manor Media 2014 p 30.
  15. ^ "Lawrence Tierney, 82, Actor Known for Tough-Guy Roles: [Obituary (Obit)]". New York Times. March 2, 2002. p. A.16.
  16. ^ "Obituaries: Lawrence Tierney". Variety. Vol. 386, no. 4 (Mar 11-Mar 17, 2002). p. 51.
  17. ^ "Lawrence Tierney: Tough Guy Actor", obituary, Variety (Los Angeles, California), March 11–17, 2002, p. 51.
  18. ^ Garrett, Tom & Larry Powell. The Films of John Avildsen: Rocky, The Karate Kid and Other Underdogs, McFarland, 2013, ISBN 9780786466924
  19. ^ Weinstein, Josh (2005). The Simpsons season 7 DVD commentary for the episode "Marge Be Not Proud" (DVD). 20th Century Fox.
  20. ^ Hunt, James (December 7, 2012). "Revisiting Star Trek TNG: The Big Goodbye". Den of Geek. Retrieved March 27, 2022.
  21. ^ a b Smyth, Mitchell (December 6, 1987). "'Dillinger' has finally wised up". Toronto Star. p. D.4.
  22. ^ "Lawrence Tierney". The Guardian. London. March 1, 2002. Retrieved May 7, 2010.
  23. ^ a b "Quentin Tarantino on Lawrence Tierney". Youtube. Retrieved May 30, 2024.
  24. ^ Child, Ben (January 12, 2010). "Why Quentin Tarantino wants to be the next Howard Hawks". The Guardian. Retrieved March 8, 2015.
  25. ^ "Exploring Lawrence Tierney's feud with Quentin Tarantino". faroutmagazine.co.uk. May 10, 2022. Retrieved May 29, 2024.
  26. ^ "Actor Held After Afray". The New York Times. October 9, 1951.
  27. ^ "Tierney Fights Brother; Gets 90 Days in Jail". Los Angeles Times. May 2, 1947. p. 2.
  28. ^ "Lawrence Tierney Jailed in Brawl". Los Angeles Times. June 10, 1949. p. 15.
  29. ^ "Lawrence Tierney, Screen Dillinger, Booked as Drunk". Los Angeles Times. January 4, 1949. p. 2.
  30. ^ "LAWRENCE TIERNEY CITED ON DRUNK CHARGE". Los Angeles Times. October 15, 1950. p. B3.
  31. ^ "Screen Villain Draws 90 Days". The New York Times. United Press. August 30, 1951. p. 11. Retrieved March 2, 2018.
  32. ^ "Lawrence Tierney Is Jailed". New York Times. August 4, 1951. p. 7.
  33. ^ "Free Lawrence Tierney After Serving 66 Days". Chicago Daily Tribune. May 13, 1952. p. a7.
  34. ^ "Lawrence Tierney Taken to Neurological Hospital". Chicago Daily Tribune. October 9, 1951. p. 7.
  35. ^ "LAWRENCE TIERNEY FREED: Court Decides Actor Didn't Hit Pianist with Microphone". New York Times. August 18, 1953. p. 48.
  36. ^ a b "Tierney Arrested Here". The New York Times. October 15, 1958. p. 46. Retrieved March 2, 2018.
  37. ^ McLellan, Dennis (February 28, 2002). "Lawrence Tierney, 82; Actor Was Real-Life Tough Guy". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 2, 2018.
  38. ^ "Movies With Ali Plumb – Movies That Made Me: Quentin Tarantino" – via www.bbc.co.uk.
  39. ^ nickbtube (July 3, 2014). Extra Materials: Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs". Retrieved May 29, 2024 – via YouTube.
  40. ^ "Star Trek is 48 years old this week". WIL WHEATON dot NET. September 10, 2014. Retrieved May 29, 2024.
  41. ^ "Simpsons writer has some wild stories about working with Lawrence Tierney". The A.V. Club. December 18, 2020. Retrieved May 29, 2024.
  42. ^ Horn, Shawn Van (June 18, 2023). "The Shocking 'Seinfeld' Incident That Got Elaine's Dad Erased From the Show". Collider. Retrieved May 29, 2024.
  43. ^ Horn, Shawn Van (June 18, 2023). "The Shocking 'Seinfeld' Incident That Got Elaine's Dad Erased From the Show". Collider. Retrieved May 29, 2024.
  44. ^ Kearns, Burt (December 6, 2022). Lawrence Tierney: Hollywood's Real-Life Tough Guy. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 9780813196527.
  45. ^ "Obituary". Associated Press. March 2, 2002. Retrieved January 26, 2009.
  46. ^ "Lawrence Tierney".
  47. ^ "Lawrence Tierney: Hollywood's Real-Life Tough Guy by Burt Kearns".
  48. ^ LawrenceTierneyBook.com

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