Lawrence Tierney played the meanest, coldest, scariest villains in film noir classics, including Born to Kill and The Devil Thumbs a Ride. He was equally fearsome in his private life, managing to brawl and drink away his career numerous times. But there was always someone willing to give him another chance because, in the words of show-business columnist Jimmie Fidler, “Sober, he’s an alright guy.”
In Lawrence Tierney: Hollywood’s Real-Life Tough Guy, the first biography of the notorious actor, author Burt Kearns traces Tierney’s wild and troubled life from his overnight success as gangster John Dillinger in the 1945 hit film Dillinger to his clash with Quentin Tarantino on the set of Reservoir Dogs, and beyond.
With 66 films, 32 television roles—and more than 70 arrests—Tierney’s six-decade run culminated in a unique late-in-life renaissance that included working with such cinematic and pop-culture giants as John Huston, John Cassavetes, Jack Nicholson, James Cagney, Andy Warhol, Norman Mailer, George C. Scott, Arthur Miller, John Sayles, Oliver Stone, Ivan Reitman, Michael Bay—and Larry David.
Tierney was a powerful, versatile actor, with a surprising touch for comedy. He died in 2002 of a stroke, 17 days shy of his 83rd birthday. Curiously, alcohol was not mentioned on the death certificate.
Sixty-six films, 32 television roles—and more than 70 arrests.
Here is the Top Five list of Tierney’s most outrageous and tumultuous real-life scenes:
1. Movie Dillinger Finds He Isn’t Really So Tough, screamed a newspaper headline in 1947 after Tierney made the mistake of picking a fight in Manhattan’s Empire Hotel with 25-year-old Henry Sturman, a former collegiate middleweight champion.
A battered Tierney faced a judge after his arrest, and the Daily News had a fine time making fun of the “tough guy” actor, describing the courtroom scene as if it were a prizefight. The two fighters, it reported, were “pretty evenly matched up.” Tierney, however, “held the edge in extra-curricular brawling experience, having thrown or caught punches in a half dozen Hollywood one-punchers.” His record also shows he had “dropped five decisions to John Barleycorn within a year.”
2. Exiled for Life from Fire Island: On the evening of August 7, 1955, Tierney and Patsy Mottalo, a guy Tierney had met in a bar, were drinking in Ocean Beach on Fire Island. Shots were knocked back, the conversation flowed, and a fine time was being had until Tierney punched Patsy in the nose. Patsy punched back. Tierney was arrested, hauled into court, and charged with disorderly conduct. The judge fined him $50, but that wasn’t all. He ordered Tierney to get on the next ferry and never return to Fire Island. He was banished for life. Before boarding the boat, Tierney shared a few farewell drinks with his pal Patsy.
3. Liz and Eddie’s Party Ends with Crasher in Jail, the headline read, in June 1961. “Liz and Eddie” were Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher, Hollywood’s latest power couple. When the Moiseyev Dance Company of Moscow came to Los Angeles for 10 sold-out shows at the downtown Shrine Auditorium, Liz and Eddie treated the Russians to a traditional Hollywood party at P.J.’s, the swinging new nightclub on Santa Monica Boulevard. It was around three a.m. when Lawrence Tierney showed up, uninvited.
When a security guard intercepted him on the way to the bar, Tierney cooperated until they got to the door, at which point Tierney started throwing punches. A bunch of off-duty cops jumped in, and the Russian dancers were treated to a traditional Hollywood-party brawl. Tierney later denied that his actions were a political statement against Communism—he had objected to not being allowed a drink. He got 60 days in jail for violating probation from a recent drunk-driving arrest.
4. “What’s with the knife?”: On December 4, 1990, Lawrence Tierney filmed the role of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s gruff father in an episode of Seinfeld. Although he didn’t think Jerry Seinfeld was funny and didn’t understand the humor, Tierney was hilarious, and the producers talked about bringing him back as a recurring character. Unfortunately, while on the Seinfeld apartment set, the show’s stars noticed Tierney taking a butcher knife from a block in the kitchen and slipping it under his jacket.
Jerry Seinfeld confronted Tierney. “Hey, Lawrence,” he said, “what’s with the knife?” “I thought I might need it to stab you in the heart,” an embarrassed Tierney joked. Then he raised the knife over his head and made stabbing motions toward the star, while imitating the screeching music from the shower scene in Psycho. He was not invited back.
5. Reservoir DOgfight: Michael Madsen, a star of Quentin Tarantino’s film Reservoir Dogs, was witness to the confrontation between the first-time director and 72-year-old Tierney at the end of the first week of filming: “We were all sitting at the table, and Quentin wanted Lawrence to look back and forth between Harvey (Keitel) and Steve Buscemi. And Lawrence felt like maybe Quentin was trying to make a fool out of him by making him look from one guy to the other guy, back to the other guy. He was really uncomfortable with it. And so he started to yell at Quentin.
“Q had had about enough of him at that point. He just said, ‘You’re fucking fired!’ And he pointed his finger at Lawrence, and Lawrence jumped up out of his chair! All the rest of us were just sitting there like, ‘Oh, my God. Lawrence Tierney is going crazy.’ It was like seeing Frankenstein! It was like this monster got up from the table! He and Quentin actually started swinging at each other, and Harvey Keitel, as I remember it, stood right in the middle of them and separated them.” Tarantino rehired Tierney later that day. But that night, Tierney got very drunk and wound up shooting at his nephew with a .357 Magnum revolver. “Dirty Larry” was arrested, allowed to complete his role under a form of house arrest, and later sentenced to time in a halfway house.
Legs McNeil is the co-author of Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk and The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry