"There is absolutely no light in his eyes," wrote author and poet Barry Gifford about actor Lawrence Tierney, an imposing lead and character actor in features from the dawn of film noir in the 1940s through the 1990s with gruff turns in "Reservoir Dogs" (1991), among countless other projects. In crime films like "Dillinger" (1945), "The Devil Thumbs a Ride" (1947) and "Born to Kill" (1947), Tierney possessed an air of implacable menace behind pale, narrow eyes, and fittingly, his characters seemed capable of the most senseless violence for purely sadistic reasons. By the early 1970s, he had left acting and was driving a hansom cab in New York, but after gaining sobriety in the 1980s, he made an astonishing number of character turns in features and television, often as elderly but still dangerous criminals, cops and other streetwise types, most notably as the crusty crime boss in Quentin Tarantino's "Dogs." Still capable of making headlines for his irascibility in his seventh decade, Tierney remained one of Hollywood's most enduring tough guys simply by being himself.
Born in Brooklyn, NY on March 15, 1919, Lawrence Tierney was the son of a policeman, also named Lawrence Tierney, and his wife, Mary. Both of his brothers, Gerard and Edward, also became actors, with Gerard billing himself as Scott Brady and enjoying a lengthy career playing tough guys not unlike his brother, while Edward left the business after a string of minor roles to become a building contractor. Tierney was a star athlete at Brooklyn's Boys High School, and won a sports scholarship to Manhattan College. He quit the school after two years to work as a laborer on the New York Aqueduct, and bounced between various gigs before landing a job as a male model for the Sears Roebuck catalog. Stage work was then suggested to him, and he joined the Black Friars theatre group and the American-Irish Theatre. A scout for RKO saw one of his performances and signed him to a contract in 1943.
Broad-shouldered and brawny, with a cast iron jaw and a steely gaze, he loomed heavily in the background of several early films, including the Val Lewton-produced "Ghost Ship" (1943). A year later, his big break came with "Dillinger" (1944), a lean and vicious biopic of Depression Era gangster John Dillinger that was actually banned in several cities where the real Dillinger had committed crimes. Tierney's performance, which reeked of innate violence and ice water in his veins, cemented him as a cold-blooded heel, and he played variations on the role throughout his initial run at stardom. He played Jesse James opposite Randolph Scott's heroic sheriff in "Badmen's Territory" (1946), and then shifted gears to play an ex-con turned war hero who tracked down a prison escapee in "San Quentin" (1946). Perhaps his most iconic roles during the period were in a pair of brutal low-budget noirs; in "The Devil Thumbs a Ride" (1947), he was a sadistic thug who hijacked an innocent motorist's car and commandeered it through a night of murder and mayhem, while in Robert Wise's "Born to Kill" (1947), he bulldozed his way into divorcee Claire Trevor's life, murdering anyone who stood in the way of him claiming her life savings. Both pictures later became cult favorites, which helped to turn Tierney into an iconic figure of down-and-dirty noir.
Offscreen, Tierney proved as tough a figure as the characters he played in films, but the reputation proved to have a debilitating effect on his career. A dozen arrests between 1944 and 1951, mostly for public drunkenness and brawling, culminated in a 90-day jail sentence and a stint in a sanitarium. By the end of the 1940s, Tierney was reduced to supporting roles; even his reprisal of Jesse James in "Best of the Badmen" (1951) took second stage to Robert Ryan and Robert Preston. A shot at redemption came with "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952), which cast him as a crooked promoter who caused the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus's trains to crash. The success of the Oscar-winning film prompted its director, Cecil B. DeMille, to encourage Paramount to put Tierney under contract, but another arrest for fighting effectively killed the negotiations.
For the next decade, Tierney appeared in supporting parts on television while touring the country in a production of "The Petrified Forest" opposite Betsy von Furstenberg and Franchot Tone. There were occasional returns to major features, most notably as Gena Rowlands' lawyer husband in John Cassavetes' "A Child Is Waiting" (1963), but Tierney's inability to stay out of trouble crushed any attempt to gain traction from appearances like these. He relocated to Europe for a period, where he married and reportedly had several children. Tierney returned to the United States in the late 1960s, only to repeat the same series of blunders. He had a sizable role as General Philip Sheridan, who dispatched George Armstrong Custer (Robert Ryan) to oversee the Western Cavalry in Robert Siodmak's "Custer of the West" (1967), but again, his alcohol issues stood in the way of his career. In 1973, he was stabbed during a bar fight, and police questioned him about a 1975 incident in which a woman he was visiting leapt to her death from a fourth-floor window. During this period, Tierney made ends meet by working as a bartender and driving a hansom cab in Central Park. Roles were infrequent at best, and he took whatever was offered to him, including bit parts in "Such Good Friends" (1971), "Gloria" (1980) and "Arthur" (1981).
After reportedly suffering a stroke, Tierney gave up drinking in the early Eighties; instead focusing his energies on his acting career. A small role as New York's chief of police in John Huston's "Prizzi's Honor" (1985) kicked off a revival that lasted for over a decade. No longer the picture of malevolent good health he had been in the 1940s and 1950s, his enormous shaved head and rusty-gate voice still projected an air of fearsome physicality, which he parlayed into a wide variety of roles. He was still the go-to for tough guys on both sides of the law, going toe-to-toe with Charles Bronson in "Murphy's Law" (1986) and Mark Harmon's "Dillinger" (ABC, 1991), as well as enjoying a recurring stint as a desk sergeant on "Hill Street Blues" (NBC, 1981-87) who uttered the final line of the series in its concluding episode: "Hello, Hill Street..." Tierney also took agreeable comedic turns, most notably as the manager of the Anaheim Angels in "The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!" (1988) and an appearance on "Seinfeld" (NBC, 1989-1998) as Elaine Benes' father. Allegedly, the show's production team were so impressed by Tierney's performance that they intended to make him a recurring character, but after a disturbing altercation with Jerry Seinfeld in which Tierney, confronted about stealing a butcher knife from the set, pretended to make threatening gestures towards the comic, the plans were nixed.
Undaunted, Tierney continued to forge an eclectic late-inning career as a character actor. He won raves as Ryan O'Neal's terminally ill father, who aided him in the disposal of a severed head in Norman Mailer's outrageous meta-thriller "Tough Guys Don't Dance" (1987), and wowed a new generation of crime movie fans as the crusty gangster Joe Cabot in Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" (1991). Cabot was the mastermind behind the jewelry store heist that puts the film's convoluted plot into motion. Off-camera, he proved equally as formidable to cast and crew by alternately charming them with stories and terrorizing them with eccentric behavior. Reportedly, Tarantino nearly came to blows with the 70-plus-year-old actor.
Similar stories ran throughout Tierney's final years, including his being ejected from Los Angeles' famed New Beverly Cinema for urinating into a soft drink cup during a screening of "Reservoir Dogs," or strong-arming his way into a discussion after a showing of "Born to Kill" at the Egyptian. Even Tierney's manager admitted that at 75, he remained as irascible as he was a decade before when his drinking was at its peak. However, in a curious reversal of fortune, his reputation seemed to bring more work to him than repel it. Between 1995 and 1996 alone, he appeared in 10 projects, including in an episode of "The Simpsons" (Fox, 1989- ) in which he voiced a security guard who caught Bart shoplifting a video game. In typical fashion, Tierney terrorized the show's staff with threats and bizarre behavior, including refusing to say certain lines if he didn't understand the humor. Tierney's career ended on a high note, with an uncredited turn as Bruce Willis' father in the blockbuster "Armageddon" (1998). He made one last screen appearance in "Evicted" (2000), a low-budget drama starring and directed by his nephew, Michael Tierney. On Feb. 26, 2002, the 82-year-old Tierney finally found peace, dying in his sleep while residing at a Los Angeles area nursing home.
Cast (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
First speaking role in the Val Lewton-produced noir, "The Ghost Ship"
Played first leading role in features when he was cast in the title role of "Dillinger"