I don’t think any character has made me laugh harder on television than Artie on The Larry Sanders Show.
Torn’s face was a caricaturist’s dream, flashing between wild anger, numbing indifference and forced sunshine. He was a one man Norman Rockwell gallery of exaggerated American expression.
Arte was the perfect marriage of actor and part. Rip Torn, a hell-raising actor with credits dating back to Broadway roles in the late ‘50s as well as episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, tapped into years of rage and personal mayhem to play the lethally unhinged, commando effective late night boss. The Temple, Texas native passed away earlier this month in Connecticut. He was 88.
I was lucky enough to have been on the TCA press tour when Shandling and co-stars Rip Torn and Jeffrey Tambor all sat outside on a lawn for a memorable HBO session. I don’t recall any other such press conference over the six seasons of the series. The show had already been on three or four seasons by then and critics were as smitten as they would be later for The Sopranos or Breaking Bad.
This was a special show, especially for our group, because it was about television. Shandling, a former substitute host for Johnny Carson, was pulling everyone’s pants down in late night. We loved all the inside baseball stuff, the constant pandering to network executives. For that reason alone The Larry Sanders Show was, as critic Howard Rosenberg called it, “a Bethlehem star in TV’s panoramic constellation of comedies, miles and miles above the crowd.”
Back at that TCA event, the three stars of the series sat before us and basked in the love. They pretty much said mass to an audience of adoring critics. I can’t recall a TV press love-in that was funnier.
Keep in mind the series was a trickier “get” in Canada back in the early ‘90s. HBO did not cross the border back then. CBC, bless ‘em, put it on in late night for a couple of seasons, explicit language be damned. Then they dropped it, just as the show was gaining some Canadian content in the form of former Kids in the Hall player Scott Thompson.
Torn was the crazy uncle who you never dared screw with because he could take you out at any moment. That was the Arte persona but also the actor’s loose cannon reputation. Yet, encountering him, especially 15 years later in the intense and illuminating extras found in the Larry Sanders Show DVD box set, you discover a far less imposing individual, a man of intense feelings.
Shandling was impressed with Torn’s comedic performance in Albert Brook’s movie, “Defending Your Life.” He apparently had a challenging time trying to cast the actor, who refused to read for the part at first. What he eventually got was a consummate acting professional but also an uncomfortable presence — the perfect creative foil for The Larry Sanders Show.
Torn quickly realized his role as Arte was to coddle Sanders, to see his charge as basically, as he put it, “a 16-year-old girl.”
When Arte tried to warn Larry about dating Sharon Stone. As Arte said, “When you’re in a show business relationship with a woman who’s more famous than you are, she’s the one with the dick.”
When Arte was so mad for Angie Dickinson he had to beg Larry to keep them apart.
When Arte and Larry stumbled upon Hank’s sex tape. “”Is it just me or is Hank really hung?” Asks Larry. “Well,” says Arte, “the camera adds ten pounds.”