Rip Torn is particularly happy to have done "Defending Your Life," a new comedy in which Albert Brooks, who also wrote and directed the film, dies and finds himself in Judgment City, where he must defend his earthly existence before he can make it to the next celestial level.
Torn plays Brooks' heavenly defender, a character who gets more than a few laughs, and Torn likes that.
"It was Albert's idea," said Torn. "He said that I have played too many scruffy villains. He said he wanted to clean me up and get me doing some comedy.
"I like to balance it out," he said.
Torn has done some 40 films, and in most of those, he's played heavies. "One of my films was recently shown on television, and I asked my son if he wanted to watch it with me," said Torn. "He said he didn't want to because I always played the bad guy who gets shot in the end, and to him, it was the same old thing. My 8-year-old daughter said, 'Please, dad, don't play anymore mean people.'
"Of course, I have done some comedy," he said. "I did 'Summer Rental' with John Candy, and we had a lot of fun doing that. I'm not known
for comedy, but I've done them, and when I've done them on stage, I've always gotten laughs."
Torn's on-screen image is one thing. His off-screen is another. He has a reputation for being difficult,
something that has dogged him for the last 22 years, ever since he was accused of walking away from "Easy Rider," the 1969 film that became the signature movie of the drug culture.
"That's what they said, and it was silly because I was never really on the film," said Torn. "I was only one of five guys who were offered the role, the one that finally went to Jack Nicholson. Bruce Dern was also offered the role, but nobody went after him.
"I never walked off the movie," said Torn. "I never agreed to do it because they didn't want to pay me enough money. I was doing a play at the time. How could I be doing a play and walking off a film at the same time? It's impossible, unless I'm leading three lives.
"It's a myth, and it doesn't make any sense. I've never walked off any job, and I've never missed a performance on stage. I can't. If I do, the stories begin all over again.
"At one point, I was doing a play and was terribly ill. I was passing a kidney stone, and you know how painful that can be. My dad told me not to go on. He told me to let my understudy go on for me, but I told him I couldn't do that, that I have that
reputation for being unreliable. I knew I couldn't bow out. I knew that if I did, they'd say, 'Oh, my God, there goes Torn again, up to his usual.'
"Once, when I did a play, a friend of mine went to the box office and asked what time the curtain was to rise. The man selling tickets said that it would go up at the usual time 'if and when Rip Torn shows up.' Well, I've gone on stage with my neck in a brace and my arm in a sling. I haven't gone on in a wheelchair yet, but I may.
"Albert kidded me about that reputation, but I suppose that if I keep working, the criticism will fall away," said Torn. "I once worked with a director who had fired a friend, and he asked me what I would have done in his place. I said I wouldn't have fired the man, that I would have found another way to handle the situation, then he went around telling people I was difficult.
"I am always eager and happy to work, but you can stir up anybody if you keep at him," said Torn, who was more or less implying, at this point, that he hasn't always been completely pliable. "I don't give a
director any guff," he said, "but what do you do when the director gives you the needle? Actors are always better when they are happy. Why make them unhappy?"
Torn, who was once married to the late Geraldine Page, has five children, ranging in age from 30 to 8. "I have three daughters and two sons," he said. "They make you become more involved in life. I learn a lot from watching them."
BAt this point, the conversation returned to Brooks. "He's a super bright guy. I am grateful for the opportunity he has given me, but I don't want to go on slavishly about him. I could."
"Defending Your Life" is showing at local theaters. Meryl Streep is the woman Brooks meets in Judgment City as both go through their "trials."