August 28, 2006

Bye Bye Bruno

Veteran character actor Bruno Kirby died of leukemia a couple of weeks ago at age 57. In characteristic fashion, his death was quiet. There were few or no tabloid headlines in the preceding days and weeks regarding "Bruno's Brave Battle For Life." His ability to meld into a movie's fabric prevented his death, and his career, from being so ostentatious. It is also part of what endeared him to moviegoers.

To me, the term "character actor" means someone who plays supporting, not leading, roles, and who is often typecast as a particular type of character (the best friend, the gay upstairs neighbor, the stern police chief, etc.) Often, movie viewers recognize character actors' faces but not their names. Bruno Kirby is regarded in this vein, although among film fans, his name was perhaps better known that those of other character actors.

Bruno's specialty was the Italian-American teddy bear with an inner streak of grizzly bear. He is perhaps best known for his roles as Billy Crystal's good friend in two comedy films, "City Slickers" and "When Harry Met Sally," where his high-pitched voice, youthful appearance and boyish charm tended to soften the blow of words and actions that were often outrageous.

Two other Bruno Kirby characters stand out for me. The first is one of his early roles, as the young Pete Clemenza in 1974's The Godfather, Part II. In one memorable scene, Clemenza, mouth full of spaghetti and meatballs, is incredulous as his young neighbor Vito Corleone, played by Robert DeNiro, boldly explains how they can confront a local crime boss. Kirby's facial expressions and hand gestures are priceless. Equally memorable is Kirby's turn ten years later in "This Is Spinal Tap." Although he appears in only a couple of scenes, Kirby creates a lasting character in Frank Sinatra-obsessed limo driver Tommy Pischedda, who calls rock and roll music "a fad."

In these films, and others, such as "The Freshman" and "Good Morning, Vietnam," the casting of Bruno Kirby was often a good bet that the film would contain many funny, surprising and magical moments.

Bye bye Bruno, and thanks for the memories.


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