THE BIG LEAK
An Uneasy Evening with the Noir Legend
By Eddie Muller © 1999
The meanest man in motion picture history sat beneath a palm
tree, sucking wind. Twenty feet away, a line of ticket buyers
snaked from the box office of the Egyptian Theater, down the
frond-draped promenade, to Hollywood Boulevard. Patrons queuing
for this revival of the noir classic Born to Kill barely
noticed the hulking geezer who'd shuffled laboriously toward
the theater entrance, then copped a squat to catch his breath.
Most of them had come to see this movie, more than fifty years
after its original release, because of the legend surrounding
its leading man. They'd heard the tall tales of his cold-blooded
persona, both on-screen and off.
Only a few of the hardcore noir junkies
on line, murmuring to one another, surreptitiously pointing,
recognized the relic in the crumpled fishing hat, wheezing
under the palm, as the star they were shelling out seven-fifty
to see. Nobody broke from the ranks to seek a handshake or
an autograph. Even at 80, weakened by a stroke, Lawrence Tierney
radiated an aura of menacing intimidation.
Dennis Bartok, programming director of the Egyptian, had scoped
Tierney's approach from inside the lobby. Bartok heaved a
deep sigh. Although Tierney lived nearby, he had not been
invited to the screening. This was due, in full measure, to
the actor's reputation as a loose cannon - a mockery of understatement.
Consider this assessment from no less an authority than Mickey
Cohen, ruler of the Hollywood underworld when Tierney was
in his hell-bent prime: "A lot of them actor guyslike
the guy that played Dillinger, Lawrence Tierneystarted
to think they was Dillinger. I guess when actors are given
a certain part to portray, and they portray it year in and
year out, they begin to play it somewhat for real."
Robert Wise, director of Born to Kill, and the most
genteelly mannered of filmmakers, was the evening's official
guest of honor. But it was really Tierney, the living, breathing
Noir Monster, that people were coming to see. I reminded Bartok
of this, ignoring the dread that clouded his eyes. As co-programmer
of the two-week noir series, I too was a guest of the American
Cinematheque, which operated the Egyptian. I'd campaigned
to show Born to Kill and was impressed Tierney had roused
himself to attend. "Let's go get him," I nudged
The actor responded to our greeting with a brusque command:
"Pull my fucking arm!" Not the standard senior citizen's
request for getting helped to their feet, but as I was about
to learn, ordinary rules do not apply to Lawrence Tierney.
Never have. Once we'd hoisted him upright, Tierney barked
out an instruction manual for maneuvering him inside. "Get
in close. Get a grip on my arms, both of you," he ordered,
his voice like gargled gravel. "Take hold of my handtight,
goddammit, tight!" Apparently this was how Tierney navigated
daily life now-using people the way a drunk uses lampposts.
Despite his tottering gait, Tierney possessed prodigious strength
in his upper body and a grip that could easily crack nuts.
Yours, if you weren't careful. Throughout his tumultuous life,
the actor blocked out his time equally among movie sets, saloons,
and holding cells. In my book, Dark City: The Lost World
of Film Noir, I'd noted that Tierney had a rap sheet longer
than his résumé:
In '48 he did three months for busting a guy's jaw in a ginmill.
Same year he was charged with kicking a cop while drunk and
disorderlyhis seemingly perpetual state. In '52 he sparred
with a professional welterweight on the corner of Broadway
and 53rd. He was the only actor in Hollywood who stood for
more mug shots than publicity photos: belted a cop in '56;
simple assault in '57; kicked in a dame's door later that
year; another jawbreaker in '58, as well as a dust-up with
cops outside a 6th Avenue tavern. The day his mother killed
herself in 1960, Tierney was arrested for breaking down a
woman's door and assaulting her boyfriend. His torso still
bears scars from an ill-advised tussle with a practiced knife-fighter.
Unpredictable, incorrigible, and belligerentthat's
always been the book on Tierney.
Winded by the walk into the lobby, Tierney deposited himself
in a folding chair. He had sufficient gas left, however, to
muster a blatant come-on to Gwen Deglise, Bartok's comely
and able assistant. Immediately tuning in on her Continental
accent, Tierney displayed his unpredictability by using fluent
French in an attempt to lure Gwen onto his lap. The man was
He'd soon go three for three. I'd learn first-hand that Tierney
is a human pitbull, conditioned and bred to strike at any
perceived threat. I'd also find beneath the volatile veneer
a complex, even sensitive, soul.
Once the nervous embarrassment about his debilitation subsided,
Tierney's bluster mellowed into intriguing, discursive, palaver.
Upon learning my name was Eddie, he lapsed into an Irish reverie
about his late brother Ed, who'd followed Lawrence, and another
thespian sibling, Girard (who renamed himself Scott Brady),
from New York to Hollywood.
"Ed was a great guy, the best. I really loved that guy,"
Tierney sighed, his eyes growing distant. Could he have been
recalling the time Ed came to a Santa Monica police station
to go his bail, after Larry had been picked up, delirious
on a church altar, pleading for sanctuary? Newspaper accounts
of the incident had Larry popping brother Ed in the kisser
as he was escorted to freedom.
Our conversation ran the gamut. One minute Larry extolled
the glories of John Donne's poetry, the next he excoriated
a one-time co-star with a febrile burst of invective. He was
sharp, lucid and challengingfar from the demented gashound
of legend. Whatever now fueled Tierney's outrageous fits of
anti-social behavior, it wasn't demon rum. This night he was
as sober as Sandra Day O'Connor.
Banter about our respective Celtic ancestors drifted into
philosophical musings on the purpose, or pointlessness, of
this mortal coil. Then, just as I was warming up to the man,
literally letting my guard down, Tierney threw a short left
hook toward my chin.
I jerked my head back, assumed a protective pose, and eyed
my new pal suspiciously. "What the hell was that about?"
I protested querulously.
"Don't gesture at me like that," he growled, still
holding out the left like a threat. "People make fast
moves around me, I react. I can't help it." Tierney favored
me with the slit-eyed glower that had preceded many a barroom
brawl. The moment passed. He slapped my knee and cracked a
conspiratorial smile: "Help me to the head," Tierney
said, reaching for my arm. "I gotta take a piss before
I piloted Larry to the men's room, steered him to a urinal.
Assisting in this project was a delicate young gentleman named
Darrell, whom Tierney verbally abused throughout the arduous
journey. We positioned Tierney before the porcelain, maintaining
a discreet hold to stabilize his substantial bulk. An icebreaker
was called for at this awkward moment. "I don't mind
walking with you, Larry," I offered, "but if you
think I'm gonna take it out and hold it for you, guess again."
It was a calculated risk, trolling for some bawdy Irish badinage
we might share.
Tierney broke off a guffaw. He wrapped a mitt around my neck
and jerked me toward him. His bald dome banged my forehead.
Despite the dull ache this headbutt inspired, I took it as
a sign of affection. Real male bonding stuff.
As Tierney attended to his immediate priority, the restroom
filled up with rubberneckers. Word had spread that Tierney,
the mad dog himself, was in the head: not every day could
you witness a micturating movie star. Soon, the cognoscenti
had formed a semi-circle around the urinal. I signalled for
them to grant some privacy. Legend or not, this was a guy
struggling to cope with an eighty year-old bladder.
Not that Tierney needed my help. Zipping and pivoting, he
squinted at the assembled gawkers. "What are you guys,"
he roared, "a bunch of fucking cocksuckers?" The
throng tittered appreciatively. Better than a mere piss, they
were getting USDA Prime Tierney.
He bulled through the gaggle of fans, Darrell and I still
lending support. As we exited, who should enter but Robert
Wise. Tierney loomed over him. Wise looked as if he was staring
into the eyes of the Golem itself.
"Hello, Larry - how have you been?" the director
"Listen to me, Bob-" Tierney bellowed, reaching
for the colorful cravat Wise sported. "I'm directing
you now! Get the fuck over here!"
Wise, dodging deftly for an octogenarian, slipped Tierney's
clutches and darted into the lavatory. "Good to see you
Larry," he trailed off. Tierney muttered foul deprecations
about various directors all the way to the doors of the auditorium.
Assessing the crowd, Tierney was gratified to see that at
this late date, five decades after his headlining halcyon
days, he could still pack a house. The steep aisle proved
daunting to him, however. It occurred to me that the actor
boomed bellicose to mask frustration at his deteriorating
physical state. (As to what sparked his youthful bellicosity,
I won't guess.) I offered to usher him down to a row reserved
for special guests. "Ah, fuck it," he snarled in
resignation. He didn't want the humiliation of appearing frail
to an audience that had come to see a two-fisted, hell-raising
he-man. We sat in the last row.
Bartok, swallowing his trepidation, announced that in addition
to the evening's announced guest of honor, "We are also
thrilled to have with us one of the stars of tonight's film,
Mr. Lawrence Tierney." The ovation was accompanied by
the kind of buzz usually associated with a bomb threat.
Tierney, however, proved to be a model moviegoer. Concerns
that he might go off were unfounded. In fact, the first twenty
or so minutes of the screening was an incredible kick. Tierney
offered hushed asides about the making of the film, cited
favorite lines of dialogue, and praised his co-stars: "Oh,
here's Ester Howard. She steals the picture, she's the best
thing in this movie," and "Me and Cookie [Elisha
Cook, Jr.] used to go elk hunting together. We were good pals.
Cookie was the greatest."
Soon Tierney whispered, with urgency: "Do me a favor,
will ya? Go get me a cup."
"A cup of what?" I asked, confused. "Just a
cup," Tierney implored, "An empty cup."
I returned a minute later with a jumbo-sized plastic Prince
of Egypt soda cup. Without a moment's hesitation, Tierney
stood up, dropped his trousers, and dispensed a jetstream
into the capacious Dreamworks souvenir. I wished Spielberg-Katzenberg-Geffen
could have been there. Never has a piece of shoddy, superfluous
mass merchandising been put to such immediate and beneficial
use. Of course, Tierney's relief did not go unnoticed. Even
to uninitiated ears, the sound of a man pissing in a plastic
cup isn't easily mistaken for anything else. Yet one woman
in the row before us, for some unfathomable reason, required
"What the fuck are you lookin' at-" Tierney groused
at the saucer-eyed spectator. "You never seen a cock
before?" Sufficiently chastened, the woman redirected
her gaze to the screen.
Once resituated, his own attention returned to the film, Tierney
proved to be an expert on Born to Kill. He nudged me
in anticipation of favorite dialogue, not just his own, but
other actors', as well. He continued to regale me with sotto
voce stories of his checkered cinema career: "I'll tell
you who was a real geniusVal Lewton. He knew everything
about making pictures," and "You know that picture
I made, The Hoodlum, for Max Nosseck? I hate that picture.
For some reason they always cast me as the mean asshole."
A disingenuous, but true, observation. In later years, Tierney
still played mean assholes, for directors as disparate as
Paul Morrisey (Andy Warhol's Bad), Norman Mailer (Tough
Guys Don't Dance) and Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir
At one point, with no prompting or provocation, Tierney latched
onto my arm and seethed, like a line reading from one of his
hard-boiled programmers: "I ain't afraid of nothing."
Was some demon dogging him, prompting this spontaneous existential
In between these incantations and recollections, Tierney topped
off the cup three more times. Appalled sidelong glances from
patrons were met with a gruff retort: "The movie's up
there, you moronic cocksucker."
Granted that among 99.9 percent of the populace, makeshift
urination in a crowded movie theater is viewed as an unseemly
breach of social etiquette. Four public outpourings is beyond
anyone's pale. But indulge a contrarian view. Lawrence Tierney
is keenly aware of the narrow and nasty niche he occupies
in movie history. He's proud of it. There won't be any honorary
Oscars or lifetime achievement awards for this guy. A packed
theater fifty years after the fact must suffice as his tribute.
So excuse his incontinence while he soaks up the spectacle
of 600 people watching his sinister chimera. What's the alternative?
Hide in his apartment? Four exhausting hikes to the head?
Soak himself in silence?
Or flesh out the legend a little bit more? Some choice. We
should all be so brazen, maybe once or twice. Tierney's made
a life out of it.
I note for the record that every bout with the cup, every
tossed-off curse, was followed by a sincere, if significantly
less voluble, request for absolution. "Please forgive
me," Tierney would say, squeezing my leg for emphasis.
"It's embarrassing, I know. I'm sorry." Every few
minutes he'd nervously inquire about the Prince of Egypt's
position, so fearful he was of it spilling. For what it's
worth, his apologies seemed far more genuine than his foul-mouthed
The evening concluded with no fatalities. Although I feared
Bob Wise might keel over when Tierney, miffed at what he perceived
as several self-serving comments during the director's post-screening
interview, hollered mightily from his back row perch: "Hey
Bob, who wrote the fucking script?"
This brought from the crowd calls of "Let Larry talk!"
as well as some anxious verbal tapdancing from Wise. Tierney
waved off the clamor, settling back in his seat and muttering,
"The whole goddamn picture was right there in the script.
The writers never get any fucking credit."
At the close of the show, a mob swarmed Tierney before he
could leave his seat. Being hemmed-in does not suit the man.
"Get the hell away from me or I'll kill all you motherfuckers,"
he snarled. At this stage of Tierney's life, in which he's
less likely to follow through, such a declaration merely draws
more moths to the flame. Fans flit around him, eager for the
expected eruption. Greetings are offered at greater than arm's
length. Photos are covertly snapped from a safe distance.
Tierney is treated like a wild animal, one tranquilized and
taken captive by time's inexorable erosion.
One of these days the Noir Monster will eventually succumb
to the inevitable. If the power in charge is merciful, Tierney
will be let off the hook in his sleep. If the power is just,
we'll read about Tierney being carted off from some fatal
streetcorner fracas. Either way, the gawkers should get together
and muster a collection for an appropriately inscribed headstone.
Let the chiseling begin: He Did Not Go Quietly.
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