The Fascinating and Turbulent Life of Lawrence Tierney

Updated: Jun 15, 2021

I spend a lot of time for some reason reading stories about legendary film noir actor Lawrence Tierney.

The guy was a complete madman, not only on screen, but even more so in real life.

Tierney — who gained fame playing bank robber John Dillinger in the 1945 film “Dillinger” and who was brilliant two years later in “The Devil Thumbs a Ride” — was a dangerous animal of a man right up almost to the day he died. His life was utter mayhem, so much so that not even his talent could save him.

I often wonder what makes guys like Lawrence Tierney tick. But then again, what makes any of us tick?

For many, I suppose, it’s the expectation that others hold for us. Or it’s necessity. Or fear. A fear of failure to be ourselves, a fear of letting down or disappointing others— yet oddly never caring whether we disappoint ourselves.

But I don’t think Lawrence Tierney ever gave a damn about who he disappointed. I’m not even sure he was capable of giving a damn. There was obviously something wrong with the guy. But his talent and persona almost seemed to make his habitual malfeasance engaging.

One day, Tierney and another guy were thrown out of a tavern for being drunk and unruly. Police eventually responded to the scene after receiving a call that there were two men attacking passersby outside a midtown bar.

Upon their arrival, cops soon found themselves involved in a struggle with Tierney and his partner during which Tierney managed to land several kicks into the officers’ torsos. Finally, he was subdued, handcuffed and thrown into the back of a squad car.

In speaking with reporters about the incident afterward, cops said that it looked like Tierney had been in a “half-dozen fights” even before police arrived on scene. (see photo of a bloodied Tierney above.)

There’s just something about Lawrence Tierney that makes it impossible for me to look away. I will read any story about him. I will watch any movie or show that he’s in.

The self-destructive Tierney — a one-time Sears & Roebuck catalogue model — was famous for his barroom brawls and drunken arrests.

In one of my favorite stories — when he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly for something like the 13th time — he walked into a bar and simply announced completely unprovoked — that he would “whip anyone in the house." (see photo of above of Tierney in handcuffs.)

Booze and brawling and downright maniacal behavior essentially derailed his career in the 1950s. And though he would gain bit parts here and there in the ‘60s and ‘70s, he never really calmed down — even with age.

There were arrests for tearing a public pay-phone off the wall, shoplifting in Paris, hitting a waiter in the face with a sugar bowl, breaking a college student’s jaw and attempting to choke a cab driver. He was even arrested on the day his mother killed herself in 1960, after breaking down a woman’s door and assaulting her boyfriend.

At age 54, Tierney was stabbed during a brawl in a Manhattan bar. And a few years later, he was questioned by police after a 24-year-old woman he was visiting apparently committed suicide in front of him.

"I had just gotten there,” he told police, “and she went out the window." 

Sober, at least somewhat, Tierney made a comeback in the 1980s, landing television and film roles in Hill Street Blues, Prizzi’s Honor, Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Naked Gun and even the Simpsons. And in a rare interview, the actor acknowledged the havoc booze wreaked on his career.

“Heck,” Tierney said. “I threw away about seven careers through drink.”

Ultimately, though, he just could not behave himself.

At age 72, he nearly came to blows with director Quentin Tarantino, who cast the brutish actor as crime boss Joe Cabot in Reservoir Dogs. (see photo above of an aged and bald Tierney.)

And one night, drunk off his ass while filming the Tarantino flick, Tierney unloaded a .357 Magnum into the wall of his Hollywood apartment and wound up in jail.

“He was a complete lunatic. He just needed to be sedated,” said Tarantino, who temporarily fired Tierney on set to the applause of the film’s crew.

Tierney was also considered for a recurring role on Seinfeld as Elaine’s father, but after stealing a butcher knife from the set, and “scaring the crap out of all of us,” as actor Jason Alexander said, the idea was dropped and he was never asked back on the show again.

The fascinating thing about Tierney was he considered himself a nice guy. He was very well read. Was known to suddenly break out into poetry. He could speak French. And he even objected to reading lines he believed were off color.

Yet, those who would go out to dinner with him often recounted stories of Tierney, seemingly out of nowhere, throwing left hooks their way as they sat at the table minding their own business.

And at a 1999 showing of the classic 1947 noir film “Born to Kill” in which he starred, an 80-year-old Tierney — who was the guest of honor at the showing — pissed publicly into a cup four times while sitting in the theater and threatened fans who gathered around his seat, bellowing “get the hell away from me or I’ll kill all you motherfuckers,” according to a fascinating piece written by Eddie Muller titled “An Uneasy Evening with the Noir Legend Lawrence Tierney”.

“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 is sleep,” Muller wrote in 1999, three years before Tierney’s death. “If the power is just, we’ll read about Tierney being carted off from a street-corner fracas.”

The power in charge was, indeed, merciful. Tierney, after a series of strokes and a bout with pneumonia, died at age 82 in his sleep.

It was an end almost too anti-climactic for such a wild, violent and turbulent life. But Lawrence Tierney, who maintained he hated the way his violent film roles portrayed him, would no doubt disagree with me.

“I never thought of myself as that kind of guy,” he said. “I thought of myself as a nice guy who wouldn't do rotten things.”