Day 7 of Noirvember: The Fall and Rise of Lawrence Tierney
Lawrence Tierney was once likened to the renowned fictional character Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde.
“When he’s sober, he serious, thoughtful, ambitious,” the 1951 newspaper account revealed. “When he’s drunk, he’s close to crazy.”
With his portrayal of Depression-era gangster John Dillinger in the late 1940s, Tierney rose to instant fame, but he fell from Hollywood favor with equal rapidity when his screen career was eclipsed by his stormy, violent, and often bizarre personal life. Arrested more than 20 times for crimes varying from public drunkenness to assaulting a waiter with a sugar bowl, Tierney quickly transformed from a promising actor to what one columnist termed a “rowdy screen actor who has been decisioned, knocked out, and fouled by John Barleycorn.” But while he appeared in fewer than 50 films (and only 23 of those between 1943 and 1956), Tierney offered a memorable, menacing presence to four films from the era of noir: Born to Kill (1947), The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947), Shakedown (1950), and The Female Jungle (1955).
Tierney was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 15, 1919, one of three sons of the chief of police of the New York Aqueduct Guards. (His two brothers, Scott Brady and Edward Tierney, would later follow their siblings onto the big screen.) His entrance into the field of acting is a matter of debate. According to one theory, Tierney was waiting for a female companion one night outside a theater stage entrance when the manager spotted him, mistook him for an actor, and offered him a job on the spot. Later, while performing a bit part in a play produced by the Blackfriars, a New York experimental acting group, Tierney was spotted by an RKO talent scout, who arranged for a screen test and offered the actor a contract with the studio. Another version claims that Tierney took a modeling job with the John Powers agency as a lark. Asked by a co-worker to accompany him to New York’s RKO offices, Tierney was tested, signed to a contract, and promptly shipped off to Tinseltown.
Government Girl, starring Olivia DeHavilland. He appeared in several films during the next two years; the best of these was Back to Bataan (1945), a big-budget war epic starring John Wayne. Few of Tierney’s features in this period made much of an impact, but his big break was just ahead. On loan to Monogram Studios, Tierney was cast in the title role of Dillinger (1945), a low-budget biopic that was made in only three weeks, and earned the actor a total of $300, plus $75 in overtime work. The story bore little resemblance to the facts of the famed gangster’s life, the film was Tierney’s ticket to instant fame.
It was around this time, however, that Tierney began to make news for his exploits off screen. On May 22, 1945, the actor was arrested for public drunkenness, and a few weeks later, on June 5, 1945, he was arrested on the same charge. On both occasions, Tierney was ordered to pay a $25 fine. After a third arrest on July 27, 1945, in what police called “a strangling condition,” Tierney was sentenced to 10 days in the county jail.
The actor’s troubles continued the following year. In January 1946, Tierney was involved in a brawl with William Kent, stepson of the owner of the Mocambo nightclub, during a party at the home of artist John Decker. The following month, the actor was charged with assault and battery after punching actor Paul DeLoqueyssie, and in March, the actor was arrested near the Mocambo after a second fight with Kent.
“I was quietly enjoying a drink when Kent came in and began making abusive remarks to me,” Tierney claimed. “I’d have gotten things settled properly if the cops hadn’t come.”
Following the altercation at the Mocambo, Tierney was fined $100 and announced that he was “going on the wagon for good.” But it wasn’t long before he was in trouble with the law again. In August 1946, the actor showed up at the Hollywood Receiving Hospital with a gash on his neck and right index finger, claiming that he received the injuries when he slipped from the glass top of a table while adjusting a light fixture. Upon questioning from attendants, Tierney reportedly became “belligerent,” and was arrested once again for drunkenness. For this incident, Municipal Judge Eugene Fay fined Tierney $50, sentenced him to five days in the local city jail, and placed him on a year’s probation, during which he was ordered to refrain from driving or drinking intoxicants.
“You are one of those people who can’t handle liquor,” the judge told Tierney. “Someone has to jolt you to your senses. You’ve got to make up your mind to quit, or you’ll end up as a drunkard such as you’ll see in Lincoln Heights jail. They were once as good-looking, straight, and youthful as you are. You’re headed for the same fate that has overtaken them.”
Between arrests, Tierney managed to find time to star in several features, including his first two films noirs, Born to Kill (1947) and The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947). In Born to Kill, Tierney played the aptly named Sam Wild – the title individual who is “born to kill” and racks up no fewer than four murders during the course of the film. Tierney turned in a frighteningly memorable performance, resulting in one of noir’s most disturbing, yet riveting, characters.
Tierney continued his homicidal habits in The Devil Thumbs a Ride, which begins as Tierney’s character robs and murders the night manager of a bank.Years after the release of The Devil Thumbs a Ride, Tierney would admit that he “didn’t like [the film] at all.”
“I never thought of myself as that kind of guy,” Tierney said in a 1998 interview. “I thought of myself as a nice guy who wouldn’t do rotten things. But obviously that miserable son of a bitch in the film would! I hated that character so much, but I had to do it for the picture.”
Despite his formidable portrayals in his two films of 1947, Tierney’s reputation off-screen continued to nosedive. In an interview in February of that year with Los Angeles Daily News columnist Earl Wilson, the luckless actor claimed that he was “off the sauce for a long time, but not necessarily forever.”
“Haven’t had a drink in three weeks,” Tierney said. “When I drink, I drink a lot of it, and when I drink a lot of it, I’m just as likely as not to climb a wall.” But after another series of arrests for drunkenness and disturbing the peace, the actor found himself behind bars, sentenced to 90 days at the country honor farm. After serving 47 days of the sentence, Tierney was released on parole, once again vowing to quit drinking.
“I feel great,” he said upon his release. “Besides doing the work – hoeing, digging, and milking – I even got in a little road work. I had already joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and I talked a lot of AA with some of the other prisoners. This time I’m really getting on the program.”
But by now, the actor’s mounting brushes with the law had begun to take their toll on Tierney’s career. He only appeared in one film during the remainder of the decade, a tautly directed thriller entitled Bodyguard (1948), instead spending most of his time in and out of further troubles. In early 1948, the actor was sued for $100,000 by a bartender who charged that Tierney knocked him unconscious, causing him to suffer impairments to his sight and hearing. (The matter was later settled out of court.) The following January, Tierney was driven to the county jail by a cab driver who claimed that the actor had repeatedly lunged at the steering wheel and had become abusive and threatening before passing out in the vehicle during a ride down the Sunset Strip. After this incident, Tierney was given “one more chance” by Judge Jenry H. Draeger, who fined the actor $150 and handed down a 90-day suspended jail sentence.
“You have come a long way in motion pictures,” the judge told Tierney. “You are a success in your profession. However, you do not appreciate its advantages. . . . I am going to give you one more chance to demonstrate the faith the public has in you is not misplaced.”
But the actor failed to heed the judge’s stern admonishment. In May 1950, Tierney caused a disturbance while sitting ringside at the Ocean Park boxing arena when he grabbed a beer bottle from a vendor’s tray. When officers confronted the actor, he reportedly pointed the bottle at them and said, “Stick -em up!” His antics earned Tierney yet another trip to jail, after which he was given a $50 fine and sentenced to two years of summary probation. Later that year, he was arrested for assault after an incident involving actress Jean Wallace.
“Larry called and asked if I would be interested in playing with him in a play,” Wallace told columnist Louella Parsons. “We talked about the part and then I offered to drive him home. Suddenly he became wild and started to scream.”
Professionally, after a two-year absence, Tierney was back on the big screen in a mediocre mystery, Kill or Be Killed (1950), then returned to realm of noir in his third film from the era, Shakedown (1950). This film centers on an unscrupulous newspaper photographer, played by Howard Duff, whose exploits include befriending a local mobster and securing information that allows him to take photographs of the gangster’s rival (played by Tierney) during the commission of a robbery.
Tierney followed Shakedown with The Hoodlum (1951), a passable gangster film co-starring his younger brother, Edward, and a western, Best of the Badmen (1951), featuring Robert Ryan and Claire Trevor. But Tierney’s film roles that year paled in comparison with his increasingly erratic behavior off screen. One incident began during the early morning hours of June 21, 1951, when Tierney and a male companion entered the yard of Frances Naylor, a resident of West Los Angeles. According to Naylor, the two men refused to leave the premises, and when she let her dog out of the house to frighten them away, Tierney “kicked [the dog] so hard I thought he had broken her neck.” Reportedly, when Naylor’s 25-year-old son, John, attempted to “repulse the unwanted visitors,” he, too, was kicked by Tierney, sustaining a broken jaw in the process. At his trial on the resulting battery and peace disturbance charges, Tierney testified that he never kicked John Naylor, and only struck him because he was threatening the actor with a large butcher knife.
“I hit him with my hand,” Tierney said. “I hit him twice. When somebody has a knife, I’m going to hit as hard as I can.” He was later found not guilty on the charge of disturbing the peace, but was found guilty of battery, for which he was sentenced to 180 days in jail (half of the sentence was suspended; he later served 74 of the 90 days remaining). But the case wasn’t over – on the day that the verdicts were announced, John Naylor filed a civil suit against the actor, seeking $30,587.50 in damages. The suit would finally be settled in January 1954, with Tierney agreeing to pay Naylor $5,000.
Tierney’s downhill slide continued when a few months after the Naylor trial, he was arrested for disturbing the peace at Saint Monica’s Church in Santa Monica. According to news accounts, around 6 a.m. on October 9, 1951, police received a report that “a barefoot man was wandering about the church.” When police arrived, they saw Tierney run inside the building, where he screamed, “You can’t take me! I’m in sanctuary!” When the officers attempted to subdue Tierney, the actor leapt over rows of pews of worshippers gathered for early Mass, and fled into a side room. Police barricaded the actor in the room and called his brother, Edward, but when his younger sibling arrived, Tierney punched him in the face. Ambulance attendants and officers finally quieted Tierney, strapped him with leather restrainers, and took him to the Los Angeles Neurological hospital for “mental treatment.”
“Lawrence is a sick boy,” Edward Tierney told the press. “He needs treatment.”
No charges were filed against Tierney in the church incident, but two weeks later, he was arrested on a common drunk charge after entering a Los Angeles bar, in his sock feet, and offering to “whip anybody in the house.” Officers J.B. Evans and D.B. Weld, to whom Tierney gave his occupation as “bum,” quoted the actor as saying, “I can hold my liquor. I’ve been drinking double shots for three days without any sleep at all and I can still carry on a conversation.” For this charge, Tierney was placed on probation and gave the judge his “word of honor” that he would not drink again.
For nearly a year, Tierney managed to stay out of trouble, and appeared in two of his most popular films during 1952 – The Bushwhackers, a Civil War-era western starring John Ireland, and The Greatest Show on Earth, a lavish, star-studded circus epic that won the year’s Academy Award for Best Picture. The latter film’s director, Cecil B. DeMille, was reportedly so impressed with Tierney’s performance that he asked for him to be put under contract at Paramount Studios. But before the agreement could be inked, Tierney was in trouble again. The planned contract was canceled, and for the remainder of the decade, he would appear in only three more films, including his final film noir, The Female Jungle (1955). Here, in a rare appearance on the right side of the law, Tierney portrayed an alcoholic cop determined to unearth the killer of a film actress.
By the late 1950s, Tierney’s career appeared to be all but over. But the decrease in his screen time seemed to have no effect on his appearances in the press. Between 1957 and 1964, the actor was involved in numerous scrapes, including an incident in August 1957 when he was charged with burglary after kicking in the door of a young woman’s apartment, and a 1958 run-in with two police officers that one reporter described as a “wild-kicking, free-swinging fracas.” The 1958 incident, which took place outside of a bar where the actor had been refused more alcohol, was Tierney’s third brush with the law within a 12-hour period.
Tierney’s other troubles included a brawl with two drinking buddies in front of a crowd of holiday shoppers in December 1959; an arrest in 1961 after Tierney tried unsuccessfully to crash a party thrown by actress Elizabeth Taylor and her then-husband Eddie Fisher; a charge of battery in July 1962 when actor Dimitrios Georgopoulous claimed that Tierney attacked him at a Hollywood restaurant, throwing hot coffee and whiskey on him, attempting to pull off his neck brace, and ripping the receiver from a pay telephone with Georgopoulous tried to call police; and a 1963 disturbance in a Hollywood Boulevard drug store during which Tierney struck a waiter in the face with a sugar bowl and was, in turn, conked in the back of the head with a metal cream dispenser. The actor also earned a conviction for third degree assault in 1964, after a cab driver charged that Tierney tried to choke him.
“The whole beef could have been settled for $1.45. That’s what the cabbie wanted but I wasn’t going to pay because I didn’t like the way he was driving,” Tierney told the press. “So this cop comes along and says, ‘Why don’t you pay him the $1.45?’ and I said, ‘What the hell are you, a collection agency?’ and the first thing you know I was under arrest. I just reached over the cabbie’s should to turn off the ignition and he said I was trying to strangle him. But all that’s academic because they found me guilty anyway.”
During this period, the actor was also arrested on several occasions for drunk driving and public drunkenness, including one in January 1960, just hours after police discovered the dead body of his mother, Marie, with a bottle of sleeping pills nearby. In many of the news accounts, Tierney was described in mocking and contemptuous terms; one reporter wrote that Tierney “once portrayed Dillinger on the screen and apparently never got over it” while another stated that Tierney “once played Dillinger in the movies and has done little since.” And one article began, “Lawrence Tierney, Hollywood’s Brooklyn boy, got in a fight again, yesterday morning early, ho, ho, hum-m-mm.”
In the years of Tierney’s absence from the screen, the actor made ends meet with a series of odd jobs including construction work and driving a hansom cab. He also made a handful of television appearances on such programs as Naked City and Adventures in Paradise. Then in 1963, the actor returned to feature films in A Child is Waiting, a critically acclaimed drama produced by Stanley Kramer, directed by John Cassavetes, and starring Burt Lancaster. He was also seen in a minor role in Exorcism at Midnight (1966), a weak, low-budget horror film with an unknown cast, and Custer of the West (1968), a so-so biography of the hapless General George Custer. By the early 1970s, the actor was publicly begging for film work.
“Basically, I need a job. I’m alive, but not doing well,” Tierney was quoted in an interview in the National Enquirer. “I had a big problem with alcohol, but I don’t drink anymore. I began drinking very heavily and getting into trouble. I used to hit the headlines . . . with all this nonsense – bad behavior, drunken brawls. I’d look to do a film – a good film. I’m a good actor, and I’m ready to go. But reputations are hard to live down.”
A short time later, Tierney was cast in a small role as a hospital guard in Such Good Friends (1971), a so-so satire starring Dyan Cannon, but he didn’t appear on screen again until 1975, when he played an FBI agent in the forgettable crime drama, Abduction. Between these features, the actor nearly lost his life when he was stabbed in the abdomen during an altercation outside a New York bar, and he was back in the news two years later when he was questioned in connection with the death of a 24-year-old woman who reportedly leapt from a fourth-floor window minutes after Tierney’s arrival at her apartment. (No charges were filed against Tierney.)
Tierney’s long-stalled career finally began to look up during the 1980s. After small parts in several features, including Arthur (1981), in which he played a coffee shop patron, Tierney was featured as a police lieutenant in Prizzi’s Honor (1985), which was nominated for numerous Academy Awards, including Best Picture. This appearance led to roles in a number of feature films as well as such television series as Fame, Tales from the Darkside, and Hill Street Blues.
The actor fared even better in the 1990s – his best films were Reservoir Dogs (1992), where he was prominently featured as the leader of a gang of thieves, and 2 Days in the Valley (1996), an underrated crime drama with Danny Aiello, James Spader, Glenne Headley, Paul Mazursky, and Eric Stolz – and if you’re never seen it, seriously, you HAVE to check it out. Tierney was also heard in three animated features of 1996, including Christmas in Oz; guested on a variety of television series including Seinfield and ER; and appeared in several made-for-television movies, including Dillinger (1991), this time playing a sheriff, and Casualties of Love: The Long Island Lolita Story (1993), starring Alyssa Milano.
In 1998, Tierney portrayed the small role of “Grap” Stamper in the big-budget disaster film, Armageddon, starring Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck. It was the actor’s final role. In February 2001, after a series of strokes, Tierney was hospitalized in a Hollywood nursing home, and he died there in his sleep the following year, on March 26, 2002. (Tierney was reportedly survived by a daughter, Elizabeth.)
Sadly, Lawrence Tierney’s talent as an actor was far overshadowed by his volatile life away from the camera, and his legacy will be that of a heavy-drinking brawler who destroyed his own career just as he was beginning to explode on the cinematic scene. But on the silver screen, in the dark and shadowy world of the film noir, he will forever remain one of the era’s most intimidating, terrifying, and unforgettable performers.