Torn attended Texas A&M as an undergraduate and studied animal husbandry. He intended to establish himself as a rancher after graduation, but first opted to pursue an acting career as a means to buy a ranch, mistakenly believing that he would hit Hollywood and achieve instant stardom.
He had been set on ranching as a career, but he hitchhiked to Hollvwood and was led astray by offers: a small part in Baby Doll (Elia Kazan); Time Limit (Karl Malden); A Face in the Crowd (Kazan); Pork Chop Hill (Lewis Milestone); Judas in King of Kings (Nicholas Ray); very nasty in Sweet Bird of Youth (Richard Brooks); Critic’s Choice (Don Weis); an earlv drawling Southerner in The Cincinnati Kid (Norman Jewison); One Spy Too Many (Joseph Sargent); You’re a Big Boy Now (66, Francis Coppola); Beach Reel (Cornel Wilde); Sol Madrid (Brian G. Hutton); Coming Apari (Milton Moses Ginsberg); as Henrv Miller in Tropic of Cancer (Joseph Strick); Slaughter (Jack Starrett); as a countrv singer in Payday (Daryl Duke); Crazy Joe (Carlo Lizzani); The Man Who Fell to Earih (Nicolas Roeg); Birch Interval (Delbert Mann); Nasty Habits (Michael Lindsay-Hogg); The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (Larry Cohen); Coma (Michael Crichton); The Seduction of Joe Tynan (Jerry Schatzberg); One-Trick Pony (Robert M. Young); The First Family (Buck Henry); unusually restrained in Heartland (Richard Pearce); Jinxed! (Don Siegel); The Beastmaster (Don Cascarelli); a psycho in A Stranger Is Watching (Sean Cunningham); Cross Creek (83, Martin Ritt); City Heat (Richard Benjamin); Songwriter (84, Alan Rudolph); Misunderstood (Jerry Schatzberg); Summer Rental (Carl Reiner); Nadine (Robert Benton); Extreme Prejudice (Walter Hill); The Hit List (William Lustig).
In 1988, for reasons that are not clear, he directed the disastrous The Telephone, which its star, Whoopi Goldberg, tried to ban. He acted again in Cold Feet (Robert Dornhelm); as Walt Whitman in Beautiful Dreamers (John Kent Harrison); the defense attorney in Defending Your Life (Albert Brooks); uncredited in Hard Promises (Martin Davidson); RoboCop 3 (Fred Dekker); Canadian Bacon (Michael Moore); How to Make an American Quilt (Jocelyn Moorhouse); Down Periscope (David S. Ward); Trial and Error (Jonathan Lvnn); Men in Black (Barry Sonnenfeld); Senseless (Penelope Spheeris); The Insider (Michael Mann).
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Member American Federation of television and Radio Artists, Screen Actors Guild, Actors Equity Association, Actors' Studio (board directors, production board, 1st chairman founding committee), Directors Guild American.
On January 29, 2010, he was arrested after breaking into a Litchfield Bancorp branch office in Lakeville, Connecticut, where he maintains a residence. He was charged with carrying a firearm without a permit, carrying a firearm while intoxicated, first-degree burglary, second-degree criminal trespassing and third-degree criminal mischief. The Connecticut State Police said Torn broke into the bank thinking it was his home. At his court appearance his attorney told the judge his client needed help with alcohol abuse and that he could start treatment immediately in New York state. Torn was released on $100,000 bail.
As a condition of his release, Torn had to be evaluated for substance abuse. On August 11, 2010, Torn was denied special probation, which would have allowed his name to be cleared of charges. The judge in the case cited Torn's history of alcohol abuse and the possession of a loaded weapon while intoxicated, which carries a minimum one-year sentence. On December 14, 2010, Torn pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment, criminal trespass, criminal mischief and the illegal carrying of a firearm, and was given a two-and-a-half-year suspended jail sentence, and three years probation.
Torn was married to actress Ann Wedgeworth from 1956 until their divorce in 1961 and Geraldine Page from 1961 until her death in 1987, and is currently married to actress Amy Wright. He is the cousin of actress Sissy Spacek.