Actor Rip Torn Dead at 88; Starred In Hartford Stage's 'Camino Real'

Actor Rip Torn died on Tuesday at his home in Lakeville, Conn. He was 88. I interview3d him along with Betty Buckley, who both starred in Tennessee Williams’ “Camino Real,” directed by Michael Wilson, at Hartford Stage oin 1999. Below is that interview .


'Camino Real," Tennessee Williams' most challenging play, inhabits a kind of purgatory for lost romantics. The original production in 1953, directed by no less a talent than Elia Kazan, was a heartbreaking loss for Williams, his first failure after a string of profound and popular hits that included "The Glass Menagerie" and "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Audiences failed to respond to the story about an innocent American boxer named Kilroy who arrives in the plaza of an unnamed Latin American city. The place is filled with characters from historical, literary and popular culture sources: Camille, Lord Byron, Don Quixote, Casanova, Kilroy. One can leave the Camino Real ("Royal Highway" in Spanish) only through an arch that leads out to a desert or, if lucky, via an airplane that makes rare and unscheduled flights. The work contains a fiesta of ideas, at times evoking Sartre's existential "No Exit" or Dante's "Inferno."

But audiences found the play too fantastical. Despite pockets of devoted support, the show closed within two months, leaving Williams bitter about a theater world that had rejected his attempts at theatrical poetry and innovation.

In the 46 years since, pros such as Jose Quintero, Al Pacino and Jessica Tandy have tackled the material, none with overwhelming success. Now, four major productions of the play will be undertaken by regional theaters this season.

The times, as well as crucial casting, may make the Hartford Stage production -- which opens Wednesday -- the answer to the prayers of worshipful Williams' fans who see this as a lost orphan of a play that just needs a good home and a smart, loving family. Key to artistic director Michael Wilson's production is the casting of three pivotal characters: Broadway musical diva Betty Buckley as Camille; veteran stage and screen actor Rip Torn as Casanova; and James Colby, who sizzled as Stanley in the theater's production of "A Streetcar Named Desire."

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But getting the heavyweight cast proved an enormous effort for Wilson. Though Colby was fresh from the encore production of "Streetcar" this summer, securing the other two stars -- both of whom have developed a relationship with Wilson -- was something else. After all, Wilson was trying to get not just one star -- impressive enough for regional theater -- but two.

Wilson -- who seems to have a special affinity with grand actresses -- convinced Buckley that the special lyrical vulnerability she brought to her previous show-stopping roles was perfect for Camille. (The theater also accommodated Buckley's concert schedule. She'll miss four performances.)

But Torn was busy preparing for an upcoming film and renovating two houses and a barn in Lakeville.

"Michael is a family friend," says Torn, "but I told him I couldn't do it because I just didn't have the time. But I decided to do it anyway because I'm banking on the fact that we're the cast to do it, and there'll never be another time like this. I felt I had an obligation -- and a mission -- to do this production."