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On This Day in History, March 15: Old-Time Tough-Guy From Brooklyn

From the New York Post in January 1973: “DILLINGER” STAR IS STABBED. In a street row outside a bar on Ninth Avenue near the second-rate hotel where he had a room, the actor Lawrence Tierney required surgery for a ‘serious stab wound’ in the abdomen.”

The  following June there was this stark news report: “Former movie actor Lawrence Tierney was questioned and then released by police in connection with the apparent suicide leap of a 24-year-old woman from the fourth floor window of a midtown apartment.” Tierney told police that he had come to visit the woman, Bonnie Jones, and “had just gotten there, and she just went out the window.”

Publicity stunts? Far from it. Lawrence Tierney’s escapades were constantly in the newspapers and tabloids during his days as a Hollywood actor, beginning with his starring role in Dillinger (1945). He was often good copy for newspapers on a light news day.

Lawrence Tierney Jr., was born in Brooklyn on March 15, 1919. His father was chief of New York’s aqueduct police force. (After he retired from that office he decided to go into show business himself, making his theatrical debut in a road company production of A Streetcar Named Desire.) Tierney Sr. passed away on Feb. 13, 1964, four years after his wife Maria’s death.

At first it seemed Lawrence was headed for a career in mathematics when, after graduation from Brooklyn Boys High School, he won a scholarship in that subject to Manhattan College. In sports he was a runner for Boys High, winning a lot of awards.

During school vacations, Tierney worked on construction teams that were then building the Holland Tunnel. His acting career happened quite by accident when he was mistaken for an actor outside the stage entrance of the New Rochelle Players Theater in New York and was offered a job. An RKO films talent scout spotted him and a studio contract followed.

Tierney’s first movie was Ghost Ship in 1943 followed by Youth Runs Wild (1944). In 1945 he played the title role in Dillinger, and fame was his. The film was a box office success. It broke all records for a low-budget film and recouped its investment, earning all $60,000 back and making millions all over the world.

As Dillinger, Tierney played the part of a crazed killer who robs banks and murders his mentor, “Specs” (Edmund Lowe), by taking an ax to his head while the two are “cooling off” in the north woods of Wisconsin. Monogram Pictures, the producer, had to get approval of the script from F.B.I. head J. Edgar Hoover, even though the film was largely fictitious. Even so, the film was banned for two years in Chicago and other midwestern cities where the real Dillinger once dallied.

Tierney’s performance in the film seemed to show promise of super-stardom, but from the time the film came out, Tierney’s drinking and brawling inevitably threw a jinx on the actor who, according to some, could have been another Marlon Brando. Instead, his movie gangster image, combined with a drinking problem, managed to involve him in more than a few scrapes with the law — barroom brawls, drunken driving, disorderly conduct incidents — from the 1950s on. Between his films Born to Kill and San Quentin in 1947 and Shakedown in 1950, he got no movie offers.

In 1951 he made The Hoodlum and was chosen by Cecil B. DeMille for a role as a gangster in his spectacular Greatest Show on Earth (1952). It wasn’t a big part but an effective one, and with stogie clamped between clenched teeth, he was a perfect foil for the picture’s star, Charlton Heston. Tierney did not receive much credit for the film, and a short time later he was in trouble again. This time it caused him to lose a chance at a nice contract with DeMille. He was charged with assaulting a man in his own home and then was found by police barefoot and belligerent in a Catholic church. When he was apprehended, he pleaded sanctuary and was taken by the police in a restraining jacket to a hospital in Santa Monica.

In 1956, Tierney made Singing In the Dark, but it was a minor film and didn’t restore any luster to his name. In 1964 he again made the newspapers when he refused to pay a taxi driver a $1.45 fare because he didn’t like the way he’d driven. He was shocked when the police showed up for what he obviously considered a minor offense, although the driver said that Tierney had tried to strangle him.

In spite of his escapades and periods of unemployment or having to take sundry other jobs, such as driving a horse-drawn hansom cab around Central Park or doing construction work, Tierney was much in demand for parts in movies during his “good” times. His filmography seems endless. Even later in his life he was in demand for such work as TV commercials for Sprint or parts in such films as Southie (1998), made in Boston with old-time Irish actors. On TV he played Elaine’s father on “Seinfeld,” and once was the voice for a character on “The Simpsons.”

Some of Tierney’s more recent films are Reservoir Dogs (’92), A Kiss Goodnight (’92), Wizards of the Demon Sword (’94), and Prizzi’s Honor (’83).

His younger brother, Scott Brady (Gerald Kenneth Tierney), went to Hollywood to be near him and became a star in his own right. An even younger brother, Edward, followed Lawrence and Scott to Hollywood.

In spite of the misdeeds his Irish temper got him into, we can still feel proud of Tierney’s accomplishments in acting. He died in 2002.

March 15, 2012 - 11:23am


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