Best known as a gangster actor. Lawrence's most memorable roles are the title role in Dillinger, and the role of Joe Cabot in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992) almost fifty years later.
Tierney was born in Brooklyn, New York. He earned an athletic scholarship to Manhattan College, but he dropped out and traveled around the country, bouncing from job to job. In 1943, RKO studios signed Tierney to a contract when a talent scout spotted him among members of the American-Irish Theater.
Early in his career, he appeared in supporting roles in films, including The Ghost Ship and The Falcon Out West. His starring role in the popular Dillinger led to him playing other tough-guy characters in such films such as San Quentin, The Devil Thumbs a Ride, and Born to Kill. He also played the villain in Cecil B. DeMille's 1952 best-picture Oscar-winner, The Greatest Show on Earth.
Tierney had a habit of getting into drunken fights, which earned him numerous arrests and convictions. His run-ins with the law took a toll on his career. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he was rarely part of movies at all. He lived primarily in New York City and for many years worked in construction. He returned to Hollywood in late 1983 and rekindled his acting career by guest-starring on television shows such as Remington Steele, Fame, Hunter, Hill Street Blues, Seinfeld, 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 1991, Quentin Tarantino cast him as Joe Cabot in the film Reservoir Dogs. The success of the film put bookends on Lawrence's career as a gangster actor.
When he guest-starred on Seinfeld (1990) in "The Jacket" episode as Elaine's father, Alton Benes, he scared the cast so badly that they never had him back on. He stole a butcher knife from Jerry's TV kitchen and hid it under his jacket. When Seinfeld undauntedly confronted him about it (much to the dismay of the entire cast), Tierney pretended that he was going to use the knife as a gag in reference to the movie Psycho (1960) during the episode and quickly returned it . In the audio commentary for The Simpsons episode "Marge Be Not Proud", the producers describe a similar experience when Tierney came in to record the voice over for his character Don Brodka. Showrunner Josh Weinstein called it "the craziest guest star experience we ever had". In addition to yelling at and intimidating employees of the show, Tierney made unreasonable requests such as abandoning his distinctive voice to do the part in a southern accent and refusing to perform lines if he did not get the jokes.
His brother was actor Scott Brady. His nephew is film director and actor Michael Tierney.
At age 82, Tierney died in Los Angeles of pneumonia. He had battled alcoholism for many years.