Burt KearnsNov 23, 2022
Hollywood's Real-Life Tough Guy
University Press of Kentucky 2022
In his latest book, Lawrence Tierney: Hollywood's Real-Life Tough Guy (The University of Kentucky Press, 2022) Burt Kearns explores the life of actor Lawrence Tierney (1919-2002) whose natural swagger and gruff disposition made him the perfect fit for the Hollywood "tough guy" archetype. Known for his erratic and oftentimes violent nature, Tierney drew upon his bellicose reputation throughout his career--a reputation that made him one of the most feared and mythologized characters in the industry. Born in Brooklyn to Irish American parents, Tierney worked in theatre in New York before moving to Hollywood in 1943 where he signed with RKO Radio Pictures. His biggest roles would come in Dillinger (1945), in which he played 1930s gangster and bank robber John Dillinger, and Robert Wise's film noir classic Born to Kill (1947). Despite his natural talents Tierney was trouble from the start, struggling with alcoholism and mental instability that emboldened him to start fights whenever and wherever he could. The continued bouts of alcohol-fueled rage, his subsequent stints in jail, and his continued attempts at rehabilitation curtailed his acting career.
Unable to find work throughout much of the 1960s, he did a stint in Europe before eventually returning to New York where he took odd jobs as a construction worker, bartender, and hansom cab driver. In the mid-1980s Tierney returned to acting. With a somewhat cooler head, he established himself again with recurring roles in shows such as Seinfeld and Star Trek: The Next Generation. He would take on his final projects as a septuagenarian in Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Armageddon (1998), where his on-set behavior would once again draw the ire of his colleagues and studio representatives. He would go down swinging just shy of his 83rd birthday, his tough-guy image solidly intact until the end. Kearns explores Tierney's storied life from his days as Dillinger, to his clash with Quentin Tarantino at the end of film career, and his final public appearances. The first official biography of the late personality, the book draws on the writings of Hollywood reporters and gossip columnists who first reported on Tierney's antics, and exclusive interviews with surviving colleagues, friends, family members--and victims. Through their words and his research, Kearns paints a portrait of Tierney's brutish behavior and the industry's reaction to the pugnacious star, drawing parallels--and the line--between the man and the characters that made him a Hollywood legend.
Rebekah Buchanan is a Professor of English and Director of English Education at Western Illinois University. Her research focuses on feminism, activism, and literacy practices in youth culture, specifically through zines and music.