"He's alternately a teddy bear and a grizzly bear," is the way Quentin Tarantino once described to me actor Lawrence Tierney, whose career was resuscitated when cast as Reservoir Dog's bald-pated gang mastermind, Joe Cabot. Tierney, who died last month at 82, was a Tarantino favorite due to his gruff, homicidal performances in "B" noirs such as Dillinger (1945) and Born to Kill (1947), and he was the blackguard who derailed the circus train in The Greatest Show On Earth (1952). Tierney proved a brawling, violent, drunken presence off-screen also. In 1955, a newapaper reported that he'd been arrested more times than Dillinger. In 1973, he was stabbed in a barroom fight.
"Do you remember his 1947 film, The Devil Thumbs a Ride?" Tarantino asked. "That could almost be entitled The Lawrence Tierney Story?"
I once interviewed Tierney, fittingly, in a dank motel room on the edge of Provincetown, where he was shooting Tough Guys Don't Dance (1947), directed by Norman Mailer. "In the old days, I drank too much and got into trouble. Now I don't drink alcohol," he declared, and proved it by knocking back glasses of milk. A grim, incommunicative man, he showed flashes of kindness. "Do you want a cookie?" he kept asking, just like the Mafia don in Prizzi's Honor.
Tierney's career sunk so far in the 1970s that he worked as a hack driving a horse and buggy in Central Park. He blamed Hollywood gossiper, Hedda Hopper, for sabotaging his career. "She would print terrible lies, completely manufactured. She was a twisted tyrant. I should have sued Hedda." Things were better with Tough Guys. "They had me read for the role, and Norman is pretty happy with it. Norman knows what he wants, and we get along. And Tough Guys is an interesting, high-grade mystery."
In ways, his character, Dougy Madden, was the moral center of Mailer's askew story. No matter that he helped his messed-up son (Ryan O'Neal) escape a trumped-up murder charge by dumping decapitated heads into the Atlantic. Tierney disagreed with my analysis. "I don't know that it's normal to throw women's heads into the ocean. If that's normal, we're all in deep trouble."
(Boston Phoenix, March, 2002)