Sunday, April 21, 2019

Sunday Rerun: Where's My Role

Young Tierney
If I talk about the late actor Lawrence Tierney a lot, it's because his was an interesting story. He was not a great actor in terms of range, as they couldn't imagine him playing Peter Pan or a poetry-reading prep school teacher or a guy who comes to town selling marching band instruments and uniforms.  New York Times movie critic David Kehr wrote, "The hulking Tierney was not so much an actor as a frightening force of nature." 

No, Tierney (1919-2002) was a tough guy from Brooklyn, Noo Yawk, who gave up an athletic scholarship to college to work in construction.  A big, good looking dude, he modeled for the Sears catalog for a while before drifting into acting.  When people needed a large, menacing man, he was the go-to guy for movies with titles like "The Devil Thumbs a Ride" and "Born To Kill."

The pity is, he could have been more consistent in his acting career had he not spent so much time appearing in real-life courtroom dramas.  He was arrested countless times over the years on various charges, usually involving misbehavior while drunk (he did 90 days in jail for breaking a college student's jaw in a barroom fracas, he assaulted two cops outside a bar, he was knifed in a bar fight in 1973...) and he said this one time while attempting to get on the wagon: "I threw away about seven careers through drink."

It also would appear that, like fellow B-movie legend George Raft, he started taking his roles so seriously that he seemed to go through life acting as if every day was another movie. If you remember the original version of "Arthur" (the good one, with Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli), old Lawrence played the bit part of a cranky customer in the diner demanding his roll ("Where's my roll?")

"The Jacket"
Never was this talent for toughness more vividly demonstrated than when he appeared in the second season of "Seinfeld" as Alton Benes, Elaine's scary father. He did a great job as the flinty, hard-bitten novelist who scared the bejabbers out of Jerry and George in the episode called "The Jacket."  (It's the one where Jerry had just bought a nice new leather jacket but it gets ruined because it's snowing when he and George go to walk to a Pakistani restaurant five blocks away. Jerry wanted to turn the jacket inside out to protect the suede, but Mr Benes says that makes him look "like a damn fool" and that Jerry's "not going to walk down the street with me and my daughter dressed like that, that's for damn sure!")

As Alton Benes
Whether it was great acting or just Tierney being Tierney, it played well on a sitcom, and "Seinfeld" planned to make him a recurring character in future episodes, which would have made Lawrence a tidy salary and a nice legacy in show business, but that never happened because Tierney stole a butcher knife from the Seinfeld apartment set, and when Jerry Seinfeld asked him why he had the knife concealed in his jacket, Tierney raised the knife like Anthony Perkins in "Psycho," but said he did it as a joke. The cast was scared to death.

Nobody ever thinks it's funny to be threatened with a knife assault, so that was it for him on that series.  And his career history shows just five more bit parts in movies after that last big chance. Sometimes, it's easy to get carried away playing a character. 

And that goes for more than just actors.

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