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Bruno Kirby Kept It Real, On Screen And Off

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 17, 2006

Bruno Kirby wasn't a movie star. That was one of his great charms as an actor -- his ability to look and sound like a guy who just walked in off the street and had no idea he was playing a role in a movie.

He was like that in life, too. He wasn't interested in being the star in the room. He made everyone else feel like they were playing the lead.

He died late Monday in Los Angeles, less than three weeks after being given a leukemia diagnosis. His wife, Lynn Sellers, was with him throughout his illness, which swept him away with terrible speed. He was 57.

I was lucky to be among a large number of people to benefit from Bruno's friendship. Some years back, Sellers, who went to high school with my wife, brought her boyfriend to a high school reunion at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. He was a famous actor. Few of us knew what to expect of this Bruno Kirby fellow. By the end of the night, after much carousing, he was just "Bruno," and it was hard to remember that he hadn't always been everyone's great pal. He had the gift of becoming your old friend, instantly.

You probably knew Kirby as Billy Crystal's best friend in "When Harry Met Sally" (in which Bruno famously says, "You made a woman meow??"), or as Crystal's thrill-seeking buddy in "City Slickers," or as the uptight military DJ opposite Robin Williams in "Good Morning, Vietnam."

Film buffs recall his breakout role as the young Clemenza in "The Godfather: Part II." He played the wiseguy nephew of Marlon Brando in "The Freshman." He was hilarious as the Sinatra-worshiping chauffeur in "This Is Spinal Tap," forced to drive around a bunch of conceited rock-and-rollers who don't really understand "Frank."

On screen he could be edgy and quirky and a little wound up. They call someone like Kirby a "character actor," which probably means that he didn't have the matinee-idol oversize cranial structure and the twinkling white teeth and the kind of hair in which each lock requires its own stylist. But the best character actors, like Kirby, can steal a scene like a pickpocket.

"There was no pretentiousness about him. He was a class act, and yet he was still from the neighborhood," his brother, acting coach John Kirby, said yesterday. "He never went Hollywood."

They grew up in Hell's Kitchen in New York, on 51st Street between Ninth and 10th avenues. Their father was the actor Bruce Kirby, with whom Bruno had a long creative relationship, John said. He said it was obvious that Bruno would become an actor in first grade, when he was brilliant singing a song from "Oklahoma!"

"There was nothing ever calculated about his comedy, and yet it was so genuinely human and funny. He had the same way with drama. He would reveal his guts in his drama, and yet you loved him and he broke your heart with it. He had one of those personas where it was really hard to dislike him," John Kirby said.

Bruno believed in civility. When Post movie critic Stephen Hunter, then working in Baltimore, digressed from a review to take a swipe at Sean Penn's relationship with Madonna, Kirby called up Hunter and said the personal jab was out of bounds. Hunter agreed, and vowed never to make the same mistake. Years later they ran into one another, and Kirby thanked Hunter for hearing him out.

"But the truth is, he was the cool thing: He defended a pal in a very decent way," Hunter recalls. "Class."

Kirby took pride in his work, and thought he could have carried a movie on his own. But you had to dig that out of him. He turned down a lot of roles because they didn't meet his exacting standards. He was never the loudest voice in the room, but you'd listen to everything he said, because he had the best stories.

I'm sure he had as much ego as anyone, but he didn't put it on the line in every scene. He met a journalist not long ago who had never seen one of his movies. Knew nothing about him. Bruno didn't mind. He happily described his 35-year career, which included working with some of the legends of Hollywood. Only after his death, while reading through his filmography, did I realize how understated he'd been about his professional history. All these movies and Broadway roles -- he never mentioned them.

Instead, he talked about restaurants. He loved a place with history and atmosphere. This summer, in Washington for a charity event, he took a shine to Martin's Tavern in Georgetown. He worked the room, chatted up the staff, and if possible he would have packed the whole place in his luggage and flown it back to Los Angeles.

He could also tell you where you could find the best pizza in Manhattan -- Lombardi's, in SoHo. Of course, the pizza was better if you had Bruno there rhapsodizing about the magic of the coal-fired oven.

He never got mad if he lost at poker. He never insulted his poker hand, so far as I can remember. You take what you're dealt. And that was his tone in the hospital, too, diagnosed with a killer disease. His attitude was: I get a little rash, and it turns out to be leukemia? You kiddin' me?

The last time I saw him, we all went to Cleveland Park to watch my middle daughter play soccer. He loved it. How many movie stars -- how many people -- want to see some other guy's kid play soccer on a Saturday afternoon?

He was a great talent and a sweet guy -- no act.

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