The moral of the Bruno Kirby-Billy Crystal story is, never disagree with your “best friend” in Hollywood, if you’re the second banana, and he’s the star and the producer. Apparently, what Harry Truman said about friendship in Washington, applies to Hollywood, as well: “If you want a friend … get a dog.”
Character actor Bruno Kirby died on August 14 of leukemia at the age of 57, according to an announcement by his wife, actress Lynn Sellers.
Born Bruno Giovanni Quidaciolu, the son of actor Bruce Kirby (who was best known for playing Bassett hound-faced Det. Sgt. Kramer on the original Columbo), and brother of acting coach John Kirby, Kirby also performed early in his career as “Bruce Kirby Jr.”
Kirby had been diagnosed with leukemia only shortly before his death. Sellers asked “that contributions be made in Bruno Kirby's name to The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society at 6033 West Century Blvd., Suite 300, Los Angeles, CA 90045.”
Sellers and Kirby married in 2004; Kirby was also survived by his father, brother, stepmother Roz Kirby, and stepbrother Brad Sullivan.
Bruno Kirby generally played characters who were either working-class, or whose working-class roots were visible in their voices and mannerisms.
Prior to Kirby’s death, millions of people knew his name, but millions more knew his face and his irritating, high-pitched, nasal voice. Now the numbers match much more closely. Last Wednesday, I googled under his name and came up with only 262,000 entries, a paltry number for a contemporary Hollywood actor. As of 8:32 this morning, the number was up to 6,230,000. (At the same time, Billy Crystal had 2,020,000 entries.)
Dozens of fans, and (so they claimed) friends and relatives posted fond remembrances of Kirby both as an actor and as a man, at Web site tributes to him, such as at Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. Some posters claimed to have crossed his path, either working with Kirby as theater ushers before his breakthrough, or having served him in some capacity on a job where he was a customer. The message was always the same: Bruno Kirby was a regular guy, who never stood on ceremony, or tried to make ordinary people feel small.
Of all the memories I read, I found Phil Oropesa’s the most moving.
Mr. Kirby was sheduled to appear on Letterman, shortly after "Good Morning Vietnam" opened. I was trying to make ends meet and moonlighting as a limo driver in New York City. I was assigned to pick up Mr. Kirby at JFK and drive him downtown. His plane was delayed by over two hours due to a fierce snowstorm, even by NYC standards.
Needless to say that he was relieved to find me waiting for him as he stepped of the plane. All the way to the car he kept thanking me for waiting. When I opened the car door for him he asked if it would be OK for him to sit up front with me. I told him it was going to be a long slow drive in the snowstorm and that I would welcome the company. As we were driving away from the Airport, he asked if there was any liquor in the back. I told him there was a bottle of scotch, a bottle of vodka and mixers in the mini-fridge. He climbed through the divider window and came back with the bottle of scotch and two glasses (I know, a very un-PC thing nowadays but a very cool guy thing to do). As we slowly drove through the blizzard into Manhattan, we drank scotch and talked about sports but mostly we talked about me. We talked about what I did for a living, my pregnant wife (our first), living in New York in general and life in the cosmic sense. To this day, looking back at the experience I can only recall him talking about himself just once when he said he was a little nervous about being on the Letterman show because Letterman was so unpredictable. When we arrived at his destination (his mothers apartment)he shook my hand, wished be all the best and gave me a $100 bill "for the baby...".
I drove many "stars" in those two years, but Mr. Kirby is the only one that I look back on with genuine affection. Beyond that one brief meeting I didn't really "know" Mr Kirby. However, from that one experience, I feel "genuine" is the word that describes him best. He will be missed.
By the way Mr. Kirby if you are out there listening, my firstborn is enrolled in NYU studying theater and acting. Maybe a little of you rubbed off on that C note!
Phil Oropesa | Aug 19, 2006 12:55:44PM
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In a characteristic quote attributed to Kirby at IMDB.com, he said, “I've been very lucky. And in this business, you have to have a certain amount of timing and luck because I know, right now as we're sitting here talking, there's a guy driving a cab in New York City who can put me away.”
Also at IMDB.com, the writer of movie and TV profiles, Gary Brumburgh observed, “Native New Yorker and Italianate Bruno Kirby tended towards assertive, pushy streetwise characters and had a highly distinctive scratchy tenor voice that complimented his slim eyes and droopy puss, often accentuating his deadpan comedic instincts on film and TV. ”
Kirby was one of the hottest character actors in Hollywood in the late 1980s, through 1991. His first big break came playing the young “Clemenza” in The Godfather, Part II (1974), in the section of the picture in which Robert DeNiro plays the young "Vito Corleone" in New York’s Little Italy. Corleone makes the acquaintance of Clemenza, who takes him to a “friend’s” luxurious home. Except that this is no friendly visit. Corleone finds himself in the middle of comical burglary, in which Clemenza also enlists an unwitting cop. Clemenza gets Corleone to help him roll up and steal an expensive living room rug.
Kirby made an immediate, indelible impression. And well he had to. “Clemenza,” as played by Richard Castellano (1933-1988), was one of the most beloved characters in The Godfather. Kirby was under a lot of pressure, but he delivered. (Although Castellano was in The Godfather early in a blossoming movie career, by making extravagant demands of director-screenwriter-producer Francis Ford Coppola for his participation in The Godfather, Part II, he cut that career to the quick. Coppola wrote Castellano out of the picture, and the latter’s career never recovered.)
Before Kirby acted in The Godfather, Part II, he had become acquainted with the Reiner family, which led to all of his great successes. In 1972, he had played, ironically, the son of Richard Castellano in the TV show, The Super, about a building superintendent. The Super ran for only one season, but it was produced by a very young Rob Reiner, who was then playing son-in-law, “Mike ‘Meathead’ Stivic,” on All in the Family.
Reiner, the son of Carl Reiner, the legendary writer-producer of The Dick Van Dyke Show, would eventually become, for approximately eight busy years (1984-1992), one of Hollywood’s best directors.
In 1984, Rob Reiner cast Kirby in a small role in Reiner’s first theatrical movie as director, the cult classic rock “mockumentary,” This is Spinal Tap, where Kirby worked with Billy Crystal for the first time. (Steve Sailer has speculated that Reiner’s decline as a director has been due to his investing too much of his time and energy in political activism.)
Most of Kirby’s role, as a Sinatra-obsessed limo driver, was cut from the movie, but it was added, as part of the extras, to the 2000 DVD version.
Kirby came to the notice of director-screenwriter Barry Levinson, who cast him in 1987’s Good Morning, Vietnam and Tin Men. In Good Morning, Vietnam, he opened the eyes of critics and audiences alike, as the humorless heavy, a polka-loving, would-be comedian who maligns the free-spirit DJ-comic played by Robin Williams. (In retrospect, the movie, a simple-minded, pc morality play about a persecuted, saintly non-conformist, anticipated Patch Adams, but was redeemed by Williams’ brilliant improvisations.)
In 1989, Kirby performed in two more Reiner family pictures. He had a more substantial role in Carl Reiner’s Bert Rigby, You're a Fool (1989), and in Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally, he played the male second banana as the sportswriter-best friend of Billy Crystal’s character. When Harry Met Sally would prove to be one of the greatest romantic comedies ever made, and the high point in the career of everyone involved in the production.
In 1991, Kirby had an even more substantial role in City Slickers, a dramedy dealing with three men’s midlife crises, which was also a critical and commercial success, as Crystal’s character’s macho friend, who goes with him and the character played by Daniel Stern on a modern-day cattle drive for yuppies.
That same year, Kirby also won acclaim on Broadway, replacing Kevin Spacey as the male lead, playing the smallest of small-timers, would-be gangster “Uncle Louie,” in Neil Simon’s memory play, Lost in Yonkers, which won four Tony awards.
At that point, Kirby was one of the top character actors in the business, his career on a trajectory that was leading inexorably to Oscar nominations, and perhaps even a golden statuette.
And yet, then his career tanked. A couple of years ago, I checked out Kirby’s credits at imdb.com. Following City Slickers, his career took such a nosedive that I surmised that he must have gotten involved with drugs or alcohol. The names of most of the pictures he was in were so forgettable – obscure, direct-to-video duds that I had never even heard of – that I instantly forgot them.
The Billy and Bruno Show: Cancelled
During or shortly after the making of City Slickers, Kirby and Crystal had a falling out, and not only would Crystal no longer work with Kirby, but neither would any of the many producers and directors associated with, or even friends of friends of Crystal. As a result, while Kirby continued to work, he was cast in fewer movies, and the ones he was cast in were, well … take a look for yourself:
Golden Gate (1994)? Heavenzapoppin'! (1996)? A Slipping-Down Life (1999)? History Is Made at Night (1999)? One Eyed King (2001)?
Kirby’s career reached its nadir, when he was billed 21st, in a William Baldwin vehicle called, One Eyed King. The act of merely referring to William Baldwin as an “actor” is a felony in 22 states.
While at some Web sites, fans and the occasional reviewer mentioned a break between Kirby and Crystal, details were lacking, and any journalistic dispatches seemed to be lost in pre-Internet newspaper morgues. There was nothing in the New York Times archive, including Times Select.
A cached, anonymous, undated entry at the no-longer-functioning O Inquirer states,
“Kirby was slated to co-star in City Slickers II , but a falling out with producer-star Billy Crystal led to his role being given to weight-gaining Jon Lovitz. The details of the feud have never been spelled out. More recently, Kirby, always stocky, appears to have packed on some weight.” (The "O" in O Inquirer appears to stand for "overweight.")
Finally, I found a USA Today story, dated July 12, 2001. Reporter Susan Wloszczyna interviewed Crystal along with Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta-Jones and John Cusack, as part of a press junket for the actors’ just-released movie, America’s Sweethearts. For the set-up, Wloszczyna had asked the performers for their worst junket story.
Wloszczyna: The press has been maybe a little too invasive, I would say, with some of you. But I never really read that much dirt about you, Billy.
Crystal: That's good.
Wloszczyna: The only thing I could come up with is that when you were making City Slickers II, you and Bruno Kirby had a falling out.
Crystal: He wasn't in City Slickers II.
Wloszczyna: Yeah, I know, but there was some reason that he didn't do it. Are you guys still friends?
Crystal: I haven't spoken to him — I think we are. I haven't seen him or spoken to him in a long time.
Wloszczyna: That's the best I could come up with.
Roberts: I've talked to Bruno.
Cusack: I talked to him this morning.
Crystal: This is a perfect situation. We're here to talk about the movie, and you're talking about something personal or whatever it is that happened, I don't know, eight, nine years ago.
Wloszczyna: But it's about the movie, because the subject of the movie is the press and famous people.
Crystal: So now you're my worst junket story.
* * *
“I think we are” still friends? “Something personal or whatever it is that happened, I don't know, eight, nine years ago”? “Whatever”? With a guy you went from being practically vaudeville partner with, to not seeing or speaking with “in a long time”?
Had it not been for Susan Wloszczyna’s questions, and Crystal’s flustered, transparently dishonest responses, you could wonder: Did Kirby somehow screw up? Was it just one of those things? Or was this a case of a star who let his stardom go to his head, and iced a guy’s career, just because he could?
I guess the moral of the story is, never disagree with your “best friend” in Hollywood, if you’re the second banana, and he’s the star and the producer. Apparently, what Harry Truman said about friendship in Washington, applies to Hollywood, as well: “If you want a friend … get a dog.”
Susan Wloszczyna deserves kudos for what may seem like a minor attack of journalism. Celebrity interviews, whether of movie or sports stars, are typically the most sycophantic media form, with the journalist displaying an adulation more appropriate to a TV interview with a genocidal dictator whose bodyguards are aiming .357 magnums at the interviewer’s head, from behind the cameras. The only difference is that a big movie star will often have a contractual agreement, rather than .357s to guarantee that no journalism takes place. (E.g., in those notorious, Vanity Fair puff pieces.)
As for Julia Roberts and John Cusack’s statements, they were just running interference for a colleague. Cusack’s claim to have spoken with Kirby that day can safely be ignored, and the charmingly vague Roberts might well have spoken with Kirby, but in what year?
I asked Crystal’s publicist, Craig Bankey, for a chance to interview Crystal. Bankey politely declined on behalf of his client.
The writer of a lovely Washington Post/Los Angeles Times obit that ran, oddly enough, without a byline on August 20, got three words more out of Crystal than I did. Crystal called Kirby’s death “a terrible loss.”
In case you think it would have been foolish for Crystal to talk to me, given my animus towards him, you’d be amazed how someone can soften a journalist’s attitude by the magical act of merely talking to him. But anything Billy Crystal could have said to make him look more like a mensch, and less like a career-killing ogre, remains his secret.
Kirby managed to pick up some healthy paychecks, working in TV, and in 1997, he co-starred with Paula Cale in Bunny, Bunny: Gilda Radner: A Sort of Romantic Comedy, Alan Zweibel’s autobiographical story about his long friendship with the Saturday Night Live comedienne, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989, at the age of 42.
In 1995, Barry Levinson cast Kirby as the guest heavy in the season-ending episode, “Gas Man,” of Levinson’s critically acclaimed show, Homicide: Life on the Streets. Levinson, who served as one of the show’s executive producers, also directed the episode.
In “Gas Man,” which first aired on May 5, 1995, Kirby played Victor Helms Sr., a convicted killer (it must have been negligent homicide), just freed after six years in prison, who stalks “Det. Frank Pembleton” (Andre Braugher), the man who had put him away, and with whom he is obsessed.
With no training and no license, Helms, a classic screw-up, had lied and set himself up as a licensed plumber. He had done a plumbing job, but because he had no idea what he was doing, left a gas pipe unhooked, causing the death of an entire family, from carbon monoxide poisoning. When he was convicted, he swore that he would kill Pembleton, as soon as he was released.
As a fan, “Ken,” recalled in a post at Pop Watch, Kirby “brought his usual edgy borderline humor approach to the role as he stalked one of the detectives night and day.” (Aug 16, 2006 9:39:21 PM)
In a just world, Kirby would have been nominated for an Emmy for that guest turn, but in the fickle world of the Emmys, that too was not to be.
Kirby also gave performances that were noted by public and critics alike in small roles in The Basketball Diaries (1995), Sleepers (1996), and Donnie Brasco (1997).
Kirby’s last performance aired only six weeks before his death, on the satirical HBO series, Entourage. In the episode “Guys and Doll,” he played a neurotic producer who takes to bed, when someone steals his Shrek doll.
For what it’s worth, while Billy Crystal may have had great success on Broadway last year, in his one-man show, 700 Sundays (for which his wife won a Tony as producer), and has had high-paying roles in Hollywood A productions, nothing he has done in pictures since cutting Bruno Kirby loose has come remotely close to the quality of When Harry Met Sally or City Slickers. Karma, baby. Or call it the Kirby Curse.
A more prosaic explanation, is that Billy Crystal needs a sidekick, in order to be effective as a movie actor. The two best sidekicks he ever had were David Paymer, who played his long-suffering brother in Mr. Saturday Night (1992), and Kirby. But although the latter picture, in which Crystal played an embittered old comic, snagged Crystal (and Paymer) his only Academy Award nomination, it bombed. Paymer is an excellent actor, but due to his face and voice, he specializes in whiny sorts of characters. Crystal apparently requires an earthier type as his sidekick, in order to click with audiences, and Kirby was by far the best such sidekick he ever worked with.
Crystal enjoyed commercial success with the “Analyze” movies he made with Robert DeNiro, but they didn’t compare to the pictures he made with Kirby.
The closest Crystal came to capturing the chemistry he had with Kirby was when he did voice work with the similarly earthy John Goodman in Monsters, Inc. (2001).
Thus, in wrecking Bruno Kirby’s screen career, Billy Crystal also did irreparable damage to his own. When he cut Kirby loose, he was about 45, and running out of time. Today, at 59, Crystal’s ship has sailed.
* * *
Although unlike so many of the posters I’ve cited, we never met, Bruno Kirby also touched me, when I saw him on a mid or late-1990s appearance on The Late Late Show, hosted by the great Tom Snyder.
Among other things, Kirby talked about when he was a little boy living in midtown Manhattan, which would have been during the mid-1950s. His father, the actor Bruce Kirby, came home at midnight from work (Bruno didn’t say if it was from an acting or non-acting job), woke up his son, and said, “Buddy, would you like to go see a movie?”
Of course, the little boy said “Yes,” and so the father bundled up his son and took him to a midnight screening in a movie palace, the likes of which New York once teemed with.
As strange as this may sound today, in those days, a man could safely take his child through late night New York streets to a movie house.
A few years later, when my son was born, thinking of Bruce and Bruno Kirby, one of the first of many nicknames I gave him was “Buddy.”
Award-winning, New York-based freelancer Nicholas Stix founded A Different Drummer magazine (1989-93). Stix has written for Die Suedwest Presse, New York Daily News, New York Post, Newsday, Middle American News, Toogood Reports, Insight, Chronicles, the American Enterprise, Campus Reports, VDARE, the Weekly Standard, Front Page Magazine, Ideas on Liberty, National Review Online and the Illinois Leader. His column also appears at Men's News Daily, MichNews, Intellectual Conservative, Enter Stage Right and OpinioNet. Stix has studied at colleges and universities on two continents, and earned a couple of sheepskins, but he asks that the reader not hold that against him. His day jobs have included washing pots, building Daimler-Benzes on the assembly-line, tackling shoplifters and teaching college, but his favorite job was changing his son's diapers.