"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Monday, April 28, 2008

Bruno Kirby

Character actor extraordinaire Bruno Kirby was born on this day in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City. He became best known for his scene stealing parts in This Is Spinal Tap (1984), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), and The Freshman (1990). He excelled at playing working class characters with a distinctive voice that was pure New York. However, Kirby was able to show a dramatic side as evident in his solid performance in Donnie Brasco (1997).

The films I always remember him for include Good Morning, Vietnam where he played the terminally unfunny and unhip Lt. Hauk. The scene where he temporarily takes over Robin Williams’ show with his own brand of comedy is almost painful to watch but also very funny. There is also an amusing running gag about how no one ever salutes him despite his rank because no one takes him seriously. Kirby is essentially playing an unlikable character but you can’t take your eyes off him in every scene he’s in and that’s because he commits fully to the role.

My favorite role of Kirby’s is in When Harry Met Sally... (1989) playing Billy Crystal’s best friend. Watching him recently in this film serves as a sad reminder of how poorer cinema is with his passing. His finest moment? The scene where he, Crystal and Meg Ryan play Pictionary and Kirby ineptly guesses Ryan’s drawing as “Baby fish mouth” (?!) is priceless and makes me laugh every time I see it. Crystal’s reaction to Kirby’s guess is also very funny: “Oh, but ‘baby fish mouth’ is sweeping the nation? I hear them talking.” Here is the clip from that scene:

Another memorable scene with Kirby includes the blind date where Crystal’s character tries to hook him up with Ryan but he ends up getting involved with her best friend played by Carrie Fisher. They are at dinner and Fisher ends up quoting a line out of one of Kirby’s restaurant reviews and his reaction is so real and genuine. I would have loved to have seen a film from the perspective of Kirby and Fisher’s characters showing how their courtship and marriage played out.

A lot of people would probably cite City Slickers (1991) as his next best performance but for me, I love his role in The Freshman, as a flunky for Marlon Brando’s Mafia Godfather. His introduction, where he hustles Matthew Broderick’s naive college student, is a great example of comic timing as he fast talks his way into Broderick’s life and kickstarts the story of the film by robbing the hapless young man. Kirby’s first appearance is also Broderick’s first taste of New York “hospitality” and he learns a vital lesson: trust no one. When they first meet, Kirby wins Broderick (and us) over with his charm and the best bit of dialogue comes when Kirby describes himself as “the glue of society.” He could easily be talking about his effect on any film that he was in – he helps hold it together.

Unfortunately, Kirby died on August 14, 2006 at age 57 in Los Angeles from complications related to leukemia. He died way too young but he did leave behind so many memorable films that are infinitely richer and better because of his presence.

Here is a really nice tribute to the man. And another one, here.


  1. JD.

    Taking time now and again to look at some of your older posts. I guess that's the wonderful aspect of writing on a blog- that others can go back and investigate and enjoy one's thoughtful pieces.

    Well, I had no idea Kirby had passed away. I must have completely msised it, but what a wonderful character actor. A special fellow. We never saw enough of him on screen. He was that good. What a loss.

  2. The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Wow, thank you for the kind words. I am actually going back through all these post because my hard drive had a major melt down and I lost almost all of my work on there so I'm going through my blog and recovering it all and came across your comment(s).

    Yeah, I still feel Kirby's loss. Every time I watch THE FRESHMAN, he always makes me laugh and he steals every scene he's in. Same with WHEN HARRY MET SALLY. Wonderful character actor.