Lawrence James Tierney was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Mary Alice (nee Crowley) and Lawrence Hugh Tierney. His father was an Irish American policeman. Tierney was a star athlete at Boys High School, winning awards for track and field and joining Omega Gamma Delta fraternity. He earned an athletic scholarship to Manhattan College but quit after two years to work as a laborer on the New York Aqueduct. He bounced around the country from job to job, working for a time as a catalogue model for Sears Roebuck & Co. After an acting coach suggested he try the stage, Tierney joined the Black Friars theatre group, moving on to the American-Irish Theatre. He was spotted there in 1943 by an RKO talent scout and given a film contract.
Early in his career, Tierney appeared in supporting roles in B movies, including The Ghost Ship (1943), The Falcon Out West (1944), Youth Runs Wild (1944), and Back to Bataan (1945). His breakthrough was starring as famous 1930s bank robber John Dillinger in 1945’s Dillinger. Advertised as a tale "written in bullets, blood, and blondes", Dillinger was initially banned in Chicago and other cities where the felon had operated. A low-budget film costing just $60,000 to make, Dillinger nevertheless proved popular, with Tierney being described as "memorably menacing" in the title role.
RKO assigned him other tough-guy roles, including Jesse James in Badman's Territory (1946), a reformed prison inmate in San Quentin (1946), and an ex-Marine falsely accused of murder in Step by Step (1946). In 1947 he played the lead in two films that have since gained cult followings, a suave but murderous conman in Robert Wise’s Born to Kill and a homicidal hitch-hiker in Felix E. Feist’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride.
The New York Times' film critic Bosley Crowther condemned Born to Kill as "not only morally disgusting but an offense to a normal intellect." He decried Tierney "as the bold, bad killer whose ambition is to ‘fix it so’s I can spit in anybody's eye,’" being "given outrageous license to demonstrate the histrionics of nastiness." More recent critics and scholars have viewed the film as a significant film noir and excellent example of RKO’s approach to the genre.
Tierney later maintained he did not like playing violent roles:
Tierney had a more sympathetic role as a man wrongly convicted of murder in Richard Fleischer’s Bodyguard (1948), but by the 1950s his well-publicized off-screen brawls began to hurt his career and diminish his parts. He received fourth billing in Joseph Pevney’s Shakedown (1950), and had a supporting role reprising Jesse James in Best of the Badmen (1951). A turn as the villain who caused a train wreck in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 best-picture Oscar-winner, The Greatest Show on Earth earned a request by the director of Paramount Pictures to put Tierney under contract, but the idea was dropped when the actor was arrested for fighting in a bar.
As film offers dried up, Tierney returned to the stage, playing Duke Mantee in a touring version of The Petrified Forest alongside Franchot Tone and Betsy von Furstenberg. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he appeared in only bit parts in movies as a result of fallout from continued brushes with the law. He continued to get arrested and land in jail for either drunk and disorderly and/or assault and battery charges. Among his film roles was a small part in John Cassavetes' A Child Is Waiting (1963). He made television appearances in such shows as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
After several years of living in France, Tierney returned to New York City in the late 1950s, but his troubles with the law continued. In New York, he worked as a bartender and construction worker, and drove a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park. According to the book The Films of John G. Avildsen: Rocky, The Karate Kid and Other Underdogs, Tierney was supposed to have played the role of Joe Curran in Avildsen’s 1970 hit Joe but due to an incident two days before principal photography had begun, when he was arrested for assaulting a bartender who refused to serve him any more liquor, he was fired.
He occasionally found film work, appearing in a bit part as a security guard in Otto Preminger’s Such Good Friends (1971), in Andy Warhol’s Bad in 1976 (which he later described as "a terrible experience—unprofessional"), as well as small roles in Cassavetes’ Gloria (1980) and The Prowler (1981).
Tierney returned to Hollywood in December 1983 and, over the next 12 years, resumed a fairly successful acting career in film and television. He guest-starred on a number of television shows such as Remington Steele, Fame, Hunter, Seinfeld, L.A. Law, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and The Simpsons. In 1984, he appeared in a national campaign of an Excedrin commercial playing a construction worker. In 1985, he had a small speaking role as the chief of New York City police in John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor. From 1985 to 1987, Tierney made a number of guest appearances as Desk Sergeant Jenkins on the night shift on Hill Street Blues, uttering the last line of the series’ final episode when he answered the station house’s front desk phone, "Hill Street."
Tierney had a more substantial supporting role as the father of protagonist Ryan O’Neal in Norman Mailer’s movie adaptation of his own novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987). He also played a baseball-bat wielding bar owner in the film adaptation of Stephen King’s Silver Bullet.
In 1988, Tierney played a tough holodeck gangster in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and in 1990 had a memorable turn by guest starring as Elaine Benes’s father Alton Benes in the Seinfeld episode "The Jacket". His performance was brilliant, and they contemplated making him a recurring character. However, when he was caught stealing a knife from the set, and later pulling it on Jerry in a threatening fashion, it became clear that he would not be invited back.
In 1991, Quentin Tarantino cast him in a supporting role as crime lord Joe Cabot in Reservoir Dogs. The success of the film bookended Tierney's career in playing gangsters. In an homage to his first starring role, Tierney reports that one of his henchmen was "dead as Dillinger". During production, Tierney's off-screen antics both amused and disturbed the cast and crew. Tarantino later claimed that Tierney was very difficult to work with as he would frequently forget his lines. He also stated that he almost got into a fistfight with Tierney at one point. Late in the filming, Tierney began complaining about working in the hot and humid warehouse scenes and took out his attitude on another actor. When Tarantino told Tierney to "tone it down" with his behavior, Tierney directed his anger at Tarantino and physically shoved him in response. Tarantino responded by backing away from Tierney until his anger subsided.
Tierney remained in demand as a familiar character actor in Hollywood until he suffered a mild stroke in 1995 which made him gradually slow down his career (he had suffered a previous stroke in 1982). He turned to doing voiceover work on animated features and made occasional appearance in film and television (which most of his appearances feature him only sitting) as his health slowly deteriorated from then until his death. One of Tierney's last roles was an uncredited cameo appearance as Bruce Willis' invalid father in Armageddon (1998). That same year, his long-term agent, Don Gerler, recounted Tierney's continuing troubles with the law: "A few years back [in 1994] I was still bailing him out of jail. He was 75-years-old and still the toughest guy in the bar!" His final acting role was a small part in the 2000 independent film Evicted which was written and directed by his nephew Michael Tierney before retiring from acting altogether.
Tierney's numerous arrests for being drunk and disorderly and jail terms for assault on civilians and lawmen alike took a toll on his career. He was an admitted alcoholic who tried to go sober in 1982 after having a mild stroke, once observing during a 1987 interview that he "threw away about seven careers through drink".
In just seven years between 1944 and 1951, Tierney was arrested over a dozen times for brawling, frequently for drunkenness. His legal troubles included a 90-day jail sentence he served from August to November 1951 for breaking a New York college student’s jaw. At the time of an October 1958 arrest for fighting two policemen outside a Manhattan bar, the New York Times reported he had been arrested six times in California and five in New York on similar charges. In January 1973, he was stabbed in a bar fight on the West Side of Manhattan.
In June 1975, Tierney was questioned by New York City police in connection with the apparent suicide of a 24-year-old woman who had jumped from the window of her high-rise apartment. Tierney told police, "I had just gotten there, and she just went out the window." He was never formally arrested or charged with the young woman's death.
Tierney died of pneumonia at age 82, at a Los Angeles nursing home on February 26, 2002, where he had been residing for over two years. He left one daughter, Elizabeth Tierney of Park City, Utah.
Tierney's younger brothers were actors Scott Brady, star of the 1959–1961 syndicated western series Shotgun Slade, and Edward Tierney, who subsequently left acting for the construction business. His nephew is film director and actor Michael Tierney.