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Lawrence Tierney

lawrence tierney, lawrence tierney actor biography
Lawrence James Tierney March 15, 1919 – February 26, 2002 was an American actor known for his many screen portrayals of mobsters and tough guys, roles that mirrored his own frequent brushes with the law1 In 2005, New York Times critic David Kehr observed that "the hulking Tierney was not so much an actor as a frightening force of nature"2


  • 1 Early life
  • 2 Career
  • 3 Off-screen troubles
  • 4 Personal life
  • 5 Selected filmography
  • 6 References
  • 7 External links

Early lifeedit

Tierney was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Mary Alice nee Crowley and Lawrence Hugh Tierney3 His father was an Irish American policeman3 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 as a laborer on the New York Aqueduct He bounced around the country from job to job, working for a time as a catalogue model for Sears Roebuck & Co3 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 contract13


Early in his career, Tierney 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 His breakthrough was starring as famous 1930s bank robber John Dillinger in 1945’s Dillinger3 Advertised as a tale "written in bullets, blood, and blondes", Dillinger was initially banned in Chicago and other cities where the felon had operated A low-budget film costing just $60,000 to make, Dillinger nevertheless proved popular, with Tierney being described as "memorably menacing" in the title role3

RKO assigned him other tough-guy roles, including 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 in two films that have since gained cult followings, a suave but murderous conman in Robert Wise’s Born to Kill and a homicidal hitch-hiker in Felix E Feist’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride3

The New York Times' film critic Bosley Crowther condemned Born to Kill as "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"4 More recent critics and scholars have viewed the film as a significant film noir and excellent example of RKO’s approach to the genre5

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

Tierney later maintained he did not like playing violent roles:

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 diminish his parts He received fourth billing in Joseph Pevney’s Shakedown 1950, and had a supporting role reprising Jesse James in Best of the Badmen 1951 A turn as the villain who caused a train wreck in Cecil B DeMille’s 1952 best-picture Oscar-winner, The Greatest Show on Earth earned a request by the director of Paramount Pictures to put Tierney under contract, but the idea was dropped when the actor was arrested for fighting in a bar3

As film offers dried up, Tierney returned to the stage, playing Duke Mantee in a touring version of The Petrified Forest alongside Franchot Tone and Betsy von Furstenberg3 Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he appeared in only bit parts in movies as a result of fallout from continued brushes with the law He continued to get arrested and land in jail for either drunk and disorderly and/or assault and battery charges1 Among his film roles was a small part in John Cassavetes' A Child Is Waiting 1963 He made television appearances in such shows as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour

After several years of living in France,3 Tierney returned to New York City in the late 1950s, but his troubles with the law continued In New York, 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 G Avildsen: Rocky, The Karate Kid and Other Underdogs,6 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

He occasionally found film work, appearing in a bit part as a security guard in Otto Preminger’s Such Good Friends 1971, 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 The Prowler 19813

Tierney returned to Hollywood in December 1983 and, over the next 12 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, Seinfeld, LA Law, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and The Simpsons In 1984, he appeared in a national campaign of an Excedrin commercial playing a construction worker In 1985, he had a small speaking role as the chief of New York City police in John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor From 1985 to 1987, Tierney made a number of guest appearances as Desk Sergeant Jenkins on the night shift on Hill Street Blues, uttering the last line of the series’ final episode when he answered the station house’s front desk phone, "Hill Street"

Tierney had a more substantial supporting role as the father of protagonist Ryan O’Neal in Norman Mailer’s movie 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

In 1988, Tierney played a tough holodeck gangster in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and in 1990 had a memorable turn by guest starring as Elaine Benes’s father Alton Benes in the Seinfeld episode "The Jacket" His performance was brilliant, and they contemplated making him a recurring character However, when he was caught stealing a knife from the set, and later pulling it on Jerry in a threatening fashion, it became clear that he would not be invited back7

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"8 During production, Tierney's off-screen antics both amused and disturbed the cast and crew Tarantino later claimed that Tierney was very difficult to work with as he would frequently forget his lines He also stated that he almost got into a fistfight with Tierney at one point Late in the filming, Tierney began complaining about working in the hot and humid warehouse scenes and took out his attitude on another actor When Tarantino told Tierney to "tone it down" with his behavior, Tierney directed his anger at Tarantino and physically shoved him in response Tarantino responded by backing away from Tierney until his anger subsided9

Tierney remained in demand as a familiar character actor in Hollywood until he suffered a mild stroke in 1995 which made him gradually slow down his career he had suffered a previous stroke in 1982 He turned to doing voiceover work on animated features and made occasional appearance in film and television which most of his appearances feature him only sitting as his health slowly deteriorated from then until his death One of Tierney's last roles was an uncredited cameo appearance as Bruce Willis' invalid father in Armageddon 1998 That same year, his long-term 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 2000 independent film Evicted 2000 which was written and directed by his nephew Michael Tierney in 1999 before retiring from acting alltogether

Off-screen troublesedit

Tierney's numerous arrests for being drunk and disorderly and jail terms for assault on civilians and lawmen alike took a toll on his career1 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"3

In just seven years between 1944 and 1951, Tierney was arrested over a dozen times for brawling, frequently for drunkenness10 His legal troubles included a 90-day jail sentence he served from August to November 1951 for breaking a New York college student’s jaw11 At the time of an October 1958 arrest for fighting two policemen outside a Manhattan bar, the New York Times reported he had been arrested six times in California and five in New York on similar charges12 In January 1973, he was stabbed in a bar fight on the West Side of Manhattan13

In June 1975, 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 formally arrested or charged with the young woman's death3

Personal lifeedit

Tierney died of pneumonia at age 82, at a Los Angeles nursing home on February 26, 2002, where he had been residing for over two years14 He left one daughter, Elizabeth Tierney of Park City, Utah13

Tierney's younger brothers were actors Scott Brady, star of the 1959–1961 syndicated western series Shotgun Slade, and Edward Tierney, who subsequently left acting for the construction business His nephew is film director and actor Michael Tierney

Selected filmographyedit

  • Gildersleeve on Broadway 1943 - Cab Driver uncredited
  • Government Girl 1943 - FBI Man uncredited
  • The Ghost Ship 1943 - Seaman Louie Parker uncredited
  • The Falcon Out West 1944 - Orchestra Leader uncredited
  • Seven Days Ashore 1944 - Crewman uncredited
  • Youth Runs Wild 1944 - Larry Duncan
  • Dillinger 1945 - John Dillinger
  • Those Endearing Young Charms 1945 - Lt Ted Brewster
  • Back to Bataan 1945 - Lt Cmdr Waite
  • Mama Loves Papa 1945 - Sharpe
  • Sing Your Way Home 1945 - Reporter in Paris uncredited
  • Badman's Territory 1946 - Jesse James
  • Step By Step 1946 - Johnny Christopher
  • San Quentin 1946 - Jim Roland
  • The Devil Thumbs a Ride 1947 - Steve Morgan
  • Born to Kill 1947 - Sam
  • Bodyguard 1948 - Mike Carter
  • Kill or Be Killed 1950 - Robert Warren
  • Shakedown 1950 - Harry Colton
  • The Hoodlum 1951 - Vincent Lubeck
  • Best of the Badmen 1951 - Jesse James
  • The Bushwackers 1951 - Jesse James
  • The Greatest Show on Earth 1952 - Mr Henderson
  • The Steel Cage 1954 - Chet Harmon, a Ringleader segment "The Hostages"
  • Female Jungle 1956 - Det Sgt Jack Stevens
  • A Child Is Waiting 1963 - Douglas Benham
  • Naked Evil 1966 - The Doctor - US Version
  • Custer of the West 1967 - Gen Philip Sheridan
  • Killer Without a Face 1968
  • Such Good Friends 1971 - Hospital Guard
  • Abduction 1975 - FBI Agent I
  • Andy Warhol's Bad 1977 - O'Reilly-O'Crapface
  • The Kirlian Witness 1979 - Detective
  • Bloodrage 1980 - Malone
  • Gloria 1980 - Broadway Bartender
  • Arthur 1981 - Man in Coffee Shop
  • The Prowler 1981 - Maj Chatham
  • Terrible Joe Moran 1984 - Pico
  • Midnight 1982 - Bert Johnson
  • Nothing Lasts Forever 1984 - Carriage Driver
  • Prizzi's Honor 1985 - Lt Hanley
  • Silver Bullet 1985 - Owen Knopfler
  • Murphy's Law 1986 - Cameron
  • From a Whisper to a Scream 1987 - Warden
  • Tough Guys Don't Dance 1987 - Dougy Madden
  • The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! 1988 - Angel Manager
  • House III: The Horror Show 1989 - Warden
  • Why Me 1990 - Armenian Robber #1
  • Dillinger 1991 - Sheriff Sarber
  • Wizards of the Demon Sword 1991 - Slave Master
  • The Runestone 1991 - Chief Richardson
  • City of Hope 1991 - Kerrigan
  • The Death Merchant 1991 - Ivan Yates
  • Reservoir Dogs 1992 - Joe Cabot
  • Eddie Presley 1992 - Joe West
  • Junior 1994 - Mover
  • Starstruck 1995 - Patron
  • Fatal Passion 1995 - Robert Pearlman
  • 2 Days in the Valley 1996 - Older Man
  • American Hero 1997 - Captain Roads
  • Southie 1998 - Colie Powers
  • Armageddon 1998 - Hollis Vernon Grap Stamper uncredited
  • Evicted 2000 - Bob final film role


  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 p Vallance, Tom 2002-03-01 "Lawrence Tierney obituary" The Independent London 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, NY: Overlook Press p 40 ISBN 0-87951-479-5 
  6. ^ Garrett, Tom & Larry Powell The Films of John Avildsen: Rocky, The Karate Kid and Other Underdogs, McFarland, 2013, ISBN 9780786466924
  7. ^ Seinfeld Season 02 Extra 04, minute 10:18 onwards
  8. ^ "Lawrence Tierney" The Guardian London 2002-03-01 Retrieved 2010-05-07 
  9. ^ Ben Child "Why Quentin Tarantino wants to be the next Howard Hawks | Ben Child | Film" The Guardian Retrieved 2015-03-08 
  10. ^ "Actor Held After Afray" The New York Times 9 October 1951  |access-date= requires |url= help
  11. ^ United Press 30 August 1951 "Screen Villain Draws 90 Days" The New York Times  |access-date= requires |url= help
  12. ^ "Tierney Arrested Here" The New York Times 15 October 1958  |access-date= requires |url= help
  13. ^ "Lawrence Tierney Stabbed in West Side Altercation" The New York Times 1973-01-19  |access-date= requires |url= help
  14. ^ "Obituary" Associated Press 2002-03-02 Retrieved 2009-01-26 

External linksedit

  • Lawrence Tierney at Find a Grave
  • Lawrence Tierney Official Website
  • Lawrence Tierney on Internet Movie Database
  • Todd Mecklem's Tierney tribute
  • Essay on Tierney by writer Eddie Muller
  • Lawrence Tierney at Memory Alpha a Star Trek wiki

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