Saturday, August 29, 2015

In Character: Bruno Kirby

Leonard Maltin once described the late, great Bruno Kirby as “the quintessential New Yorker.” A fitting title, given that many of Kirby’s most iconic roles were men who effortlessly inhabited that city. Much of Kirby’s career saw him juggling a balance in his characters. Men who were scary and funny, threatening and charming, all at the same time. Kirby didn’t play one-note. He gave his characters depth and notoriety. Yet, for some reason, Kirby’s acclaim still isn’t what it deserves to be. This man should be remembered with the greats, period.

Five Essential Roles
The Godfather: Part II (1974)
Young Peter Clemenza
Shortly after we meet a young and inspired Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro), a neighbor he does not yet know, Peter Clemenza, asks Corleone to stash a sack of guns. As payment, Clemenza invites Corleone to knock off a house with him, in which Corleone inherits a fine rug. And as such, a great partnership is born.

It’s so fun to go back and see one of Kirby’s earliest performances, in such a masterful film no less. He did such a fine job of playing the younger version of a character many loved from the first film. After all, if you’ve seen The Godfather, it’s impossible to forget Clemenza instructing a fellow soldier to “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” But now, as far as I’m concerned, Clemenza is inseparable from Bruno Kirby.

When Harry Met Sally... (1989)
One of my favorite moments of Rob Reiner’s perfect film, When Harry Met Sally…, is the hysterical double date scene. Harry (Billy Crystal) is trying to set his best pal, Jess, up with his dear friend, Sally (Meg Ryan). Sally, in turn, is game with setting her best pal, Marie (Carrie Fisher), up with Harry. Things quickly go off the rails, when neither Harry & Marie, nor Sally & Jess learn they have nothing in common. But as the conversation evolves, it appears that Jess and Marie actually get along quite well, and, despite objections from both Harry and Sally, decide to go home with each other. It’s so amusing how Jess and Marie, the two best friends of our main characters, actually become the stable relationship of the film. You never know where love will come from.

The Freshman (1990)
Victor Ray
Victor Ray is such a ham. You can’t not love him. As the whacky, crass nephew of local mob boss, Carmine Sabantini (Marlon Brando, paying meta homage to Vito Corleone), Victor has a desire to be loved by his dear uncle, but, at the same time, is thankful to be involved with him at all. Kirby’s work in the film is out and out silly from the start, but Kirby, as usual, never pushes Victor into absurdity. And that’s the thing about Bruno Kirby. It would be so easy to play Victor Ray as a clichéd jealous relative, but Kirby gives him depth. In shying away from normality, Kirby made Victor memorable for all the right reasons.

Sleepers (1996)
Shakes’ Father
Kirby’s role as Shakes’ belligerent father in Sleepers is such a concise portrait of an angry and wounded man. His final scene in the film, in which he shares a humorless dinner with his grown son, says everything you need to know about each character involved (including Shakes’ silent mother). The scene runs for only 75 seconds, is captured in one shot, and it is a masterclass in acting. Watch the way Kirby and Jason Patric play off each other. The way Patric’s Shakes hesitantly, carefully tries to bring up a pleasant subject, and Kirby cuts him off, demanding that his wife serve the chicken. Shakes, vulnerable and afraid, ends his story prematurely. His father stares at him, then gets back to eating. As Shakes looks down, shoulders hunched forward, he gives his old man one final, unnoticed glance. His father, in return, glances at his son unnoticed. A missed opportunity at an actual connection. And that, my friends, is acting.

Donnie Brasco (1997)
I had to list at least one straight up gangster here. Of course, wise guys don’t get much more impressionable than Young Clemenza, but Kirby’s role in that film is a minor one. Here, in Mike Newell’s criminally underrated masterwork, Donnie Brasco, Kirby gets to inhabit a genuine mobster psycho. Playing a fictional version of real life Mafioso, Nicholas Santora, Kirby gives his Nicky just the right amount of joyful viciousness and earnest humor. It’s a uniquely crafted performance that only Bruno Kirby could deliver.

There hasn’t been a better New York mob movie made since Donnie Brasco. More people should be talking about this film, and Kirby’s inspired work in it.

The Best of the Best
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Lt. Steven Hauk
“And if you do… and if you DOOOOOOOO, and if you DOOOOO…”

Again with the balance of performance. Kirby’s Lt. Haul constantly tip-toes the line between genuinely good-hearted fella and ball busting asshole. To fully assume one of those character positions would be fruitless, as Robin Williams occupies the former, and J.T. Walsh commands the latter. So, in essence, Lt. Hauk is a perfect blend of Williams’ Adrian Cronauer and Walsh’s Major Dickerson. Hauk is a senior officer who demands respect but never gets it. He’s never taken seriously and his authority is constantly mocked. It’s a tough balance to achieve – the kiss ass who wants to be “one of the guys” – but Kirby absolutely owns it.

For me, Kirby will always be the funniest part of Good Morning, Vietnam. His half ass motivational speech, which I quoted in part above (watch part one here, and part two here), is my favorite scene in film. I could quote the whole damn thing here and it would completely land, the writing’s that strong. But Kirby is responsible for making it hysterical. I’d love to know how many takes of this scene were ruined by the actors busting out laughing. And the moment when Hauk assumes command of Cronauer’s radio broadcast… well, as Kirby’s character from Donnie Brasco might say, fuhgeddaboudit.

Other Notable Roles
in Modern Romance
Borderline (1980)
Where the Buffalo Roam (1980)
Modern Romance (1981)
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Birdy (1984)
Flesh+Blood (1985)
Tin Men (1987)
We’re No Angels (1989)
It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (1989–1990)
City Slickers (1991)
Hoffa (1992)
The Larry Sanders Show (1993-1998)
The Basketball Diaries (1995)
A Slipping-Down Life (1999)
Stuart Little (1999)
Helter Skelter (2004)
Entourage (2006)


  1. There is some wonderful stuff, here. I always forget how many great roles he's played. Thanks for the refresher course. It's amazing how much he looks like a beefier Ed Norton, too, especially in that first pic. Or is it just me?

    1. Ohh interesting connection with Ed Norton. I've never thought about that before, but I can see it. Glad you're a fan of Kirby's. I love the guy.

  2. Truly one of the finest character actors ever. I love him in The Godfather Pt. II and in Sleepers as the latter is probably, one of the most underrated films of the 1990s. How come there's not much love for it?

    1. No idea, my friend. That's one of my all-time favorite films, and no one ever talks about it. Very strange to me.

  3. His bit part in Spinal Tap always cracks me up. How they just roll up the window while he's waxing on about Frank Sinatra.

    1. So hilarious. Apparently Kirby was a huge Sinatra fan in real life, so any chance he had to talk about him, he did. Love it.

  4. He was good in City Slickers, too, but that was really just re-teaming with Crystal after When Harry Met Sally and the latter is definitely the better of the two. "You made a woman meow?"

    It would probably be either that or Good Morning Vietnam I'd have as his best. It's been quite a few years since I last saw GMV, but I think I remember feeling Kirby's character was a little too cartoonish to begin with.

    1. It definitely came down to those two roles. Had to watch both movies again before deciding. There was something about his work in GMV that had me rolling. I think he's absolutely hysterical in that movie.

  5. I was hoping for a City Slickers mention, but it's tough to argue with these picks. (I've not seen Sleepers yet.) He NAILED it in Good Morning, Vietnam, for sure.

    1. I honestly felt that City Slickers was a bit of a repeat of his When Harry Met Sally work. Though it was this close to making the final cut. So happy you like his GMV work.

  6. Another great actor that died too soon and never got enough recognition. He was always one of the best parts of whatever movie he popped up in. Especially Donnie Brasco and Good Morning, Vietnam. "Sir, in my heart, I know I'm funny."

    1. Hahah yes! I LOVE that line. So fuckin' funny. Really miss this guy, and yeah, I which he got more credit.

  7. This a great article thank you, He was my godfather growing up and inspired me to become what I am today, which is an actor like him. His spirit and love for the craft made me the person I am today. Thank you so much once again.

    1. Wow, thank you so much for this comment. I'm very sorry for your loss, but wow, what a legacy of great films your godfather left behind!